War passing by

Ever wonder what it would be like to be a tourist in a war zone? Think it would be impossible to be a detached spectator just soaking in the savagery? You might not believe it, but that’s what war was like to me.

Arriving in Kuwait on September 11, 2009, my team spent two weeks at Camp Buehring, then off to Baghdad International Airport for a few days, on to Camp Taji for two more weeks, back to BIAP to wait for a lift down to Basrah. Spend two more weeks doing Relief in Place ops with the MTT we replaced. It was well into October 2009 by the time we were on our own at Camp Savage. Operation Iraqi Freedom was near an end. Basrah was largely pacified. The sectarian cleansing preceded us and ensured our safety. We could relax, our security paid for through the generosity of genocide.

But it was still a war zone, right? It looked like one. Pockmarks in overpasses from IEDs gone by. Driving under them made your nuts climb up into your body. Piles of trash strewn along every mile of the highways keeping you hyper-vigilant while scanning for the mass that would ignite your demise.

You lived on an Iraqi Army compound that housed several IA units. Your Iraqi partner unit co-located here in a separated area of the base which housed Iraqi Border Police and National Police academies. The students loved rushing out to greet you during their mid-morning break. Lining up along hundreds of feet of chain link fencing they merrily dropped trou, turned their backs, and squatted. It was their favorite daily activity, a shit-stenched salutation.

Walk up to the guard tower that mysteriously faced into the IA base, walk the serpentine and avoid the fecal land mines and food trash left from countless guard shifts. Stroll right into a 40’ burn pit filled with seemingly everything but dead bodies. Suck it in, breath deep and know that this noxious smell is the lasting memory of this part of the world. From the first foul whiff of Kuwait to the overwhelming odor of Iraq, more a taste hanging heavy on your tongue than a smell. Invading every olfactory pore, every cell of your body. You might be in Iraq for a few months, maybe a year, but Iraq will be in you forever.

Oil black skies interrupted only by oil wells ablaze. Step onto the TOC roof and spin around. A dozen or more clusters of wells. Easy to pick out with their mohawks of flame. There might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there’s a million ways this place could kill you. Gaze off, get lost in your thoughts of mortality. See death’s face in the black smoke climbing into the Iraqi night. Hop back down and wonder if each day is really a new day or just a continuation of the same. Every mundane, boring day. You want to jump in the MRAPs and go on a ‘combat patrol’ just to have something to do. Something to get excited over, sip on the delicious adrenaline straight from Aphrodite’s chalice. Or is it Ares’? Or are you up your own ass?

Is it really a war? Did you really go off and fight if you never fired your M4, were never blown the fuck up? What did you do with all those months in the desert. All that time longing for a far away coast. Was it worth it? Sacrifices borne by you, your family, dozens of loved ones who would never get that time with you back. Is your ego satisfied? Did you find what you were looking for? Was it your manhood? Was it proof that you were special? Do you really think anyone will give a fuck that you went to Iraq? Everyone else is too busy trying to survive themselves. You think you’re in a war zone and everyone back home is doing more fighting during economic collapse. You’re the lucky one with a guaranteed paycheck, healthcare, retirement savings.

A shooting at Fort Hood leaves 13 dead. You just left Hood, thinking life was taking you to  a land of peril, stalked by death at every turn. Turns out you’re safer at Camp Savage than on Battalion Avenue. This is a joke right? Where’s the goddamned war!? You see signs of it everywhere. Bombed out airplane hangars ring the IA base that used to be an Iraqi Air Force base. Tarmac still unusable. Burned out tank and BMP husks decorate house fronts like fountains of Hades. Are there still bones left in them or did someone have the decency to clean them out? Keep your eyes on the road. You AREN’T a tourist here. There’s a mission. Important work to be done. America thinks you’re defending them (maybe?).

Arrive at the Border Police Commando Battalion base, just east of COB Basrah. Park the MRAPs, scan the neighborhood a half mile south of the base walls. Separated by elevated train tracks, Lego-like houses dotted with windows that may as well be caves. You can’t see in them and wonder what might be lurking within. Watching you, waiting for the opportunity to take a lucky shot straight through your nose and out the back. You’ll never know it though.

Teach some Iraqi officers about GPS. They don’t have any GPS devices, but they want to know how to use them so they can brag to their colleagues. You’re in Iraq to award bragging rights, wasta. Wastin’ away in Wastaville, getting looped on chia and RipIt. I am your White Savior in ACUs, here to bestow freedom on the worthy who love us. Why don’t you love me?

A few hours pass, pack it up and head to the COB to pick up mail, make a PX run, restock on RipIts and near beer. Marvel at all the civilians running around. Coming from around the globe, coming to this Little America. Scan the environment. Is there anything here not owned & operated by Halliburton in some form or another? Some people are getting rich, you’re just getting fat and sloppy. Damn. Get the fuck out of there before someone wants to yell at you about how dirty you look, for smelling like an unwashed ballbag. Speed back to the safety of Savage. Another great mission accomplished. Another day done in Iraq. Too many more to go before you can return home and scrub this place from your body. Are you a tourist? Who fucking cares. You’re here in Iraq and that’s all that matters. You hate this place. You hate the people who started all this. You hate the people who can’t take care of their own shit and trap you here. You just hate.

 

 

On service and sacrifice

It’s this blog’s 2nd birthday. Something I started as a way to bridge the civil-military divide, and also to help me piece together a memoir. Life has often pulled me away from this and that is something that I’ve had to learn to accept. Tonight I read over my posts from the previous two Veterans Days. I’ve written about the need to temper our habit for overdoing holidays and about spending this day in Iraq. For this installment I want to express some ideas that have been brewing for some time but have not yet made it onto the blog.

Yesterday I read great pieces from Angry Staff Officer on continuing service after leaving the military and a tremendous article in the New York Times from Phil Klay. They helped me take a couple nebulous ideas that have been bouncing around in my head and start forming some half way decent sentences.

ASO’s blog touched on something I’ve been kicking around since July. The idea that separating from the military does not mean the end of our service to our communities. Many Vets form an identity around their service. While we should all be proud of what we volunteered to do, shaping a lifelong identity around something that most of us did for only a few years is not healthy, and downright sad. The majority of Vets serve 3, 4, or 5 years. We all laugh at the Uncle Rico types who hang on to their high school sports glory, the people who still live like frat boys 20 or more years after graduation, all these people who can’t move on to another chapter in their lives and find something meaningful to live for. We never really call out Vets for doing the same thing though. It’s a striking example of the civil-military divide that civilians do not feel able to call out this behavior.

I’m not here to rant on this, although it grates on me all the time. I’m writing to talk about my own struggles with this. To be fair, it’s not easy to transition out of the military and into civilian life. You want to build new friendships, but all you have to talk about is your military experiences. You want to start a new chapter, but there’s usually nobody to show you how to put, what at the time, are the most formative and impactful years of your life behind you. Everyone else in The World had normal lives while you were serving, and now you’re trying to catch up in an un-empathetic world.

If you’ve never seen the movie ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ please make a note to look it up. The first time I saw it I was left in tears. I still choke up watching it, but that first time really shook me. It showed me that these transition struggles were something that Vets of even a popular war (WWII) went through.

For me I tried to make a clean break from the Army and move forward as a civilian as if that was no big deal. I failed horribly for years. Bouts of depression, despair, apathy, nihilism, and anger plagued me. I was bitter over not finding something to do with my life that felt remotely as important as wearing the uniform felt. Life felt empty. Jobs were meaningless. Everything was just a time filler. Make money, pay bills, die.

Slowly I realized that service was a foundational part of me. It’s what drove me to join the Army in the first place. It was something I had amputated from my life without thought and I spent 8 years bleeding out.

That brings us to this past July when I joined my district’s volunteer firefighter company. For months my wife had been softly nudging me to join. The fire hall is on the corner of our street, so nearly every day we were driving by, the sign outside flashing “Join Now!” I went back and forth with it. I didn’t know if I’d have the time to commit, and I had doubts of my physical ability to perform having asthma and two bad knees. As summer began things were starting to settle down for us for the first time since October 2018 when we moved. I decided to stop at the hall on a night when they were training and talk to someone about what the demands were like and what to expect. Later that night I returned with my application.

A week after Independence Day I officially became a member of Union Fire Company, and since Labor Day I’ve been in a Basic Exterior Firefighting Operations class every Tuesday and Thursday night. Being welcomed into the company and made to feel part of the team, part of something bigger than myself, being able to serve my community in a way that I feel matters has been life changing for me. My mental health has improved considerably. It’s also been an exercise in self awareness. After responding to calls for a couple months I recognized what had been missing from my life since July 2011. When someone asks how things are going so far I tell them I’m loving it. Being a firefighter has a lot of the things I liked about the Army and very little of the stupid bullshit that drove me mad. I feel a connection to my community that I never felt before. I no longer feel like I’m just marking time as life slowly expires.

So to Angry Staff Officer’s point, we all need to find a way to continue service beyond the military. This is how I’ve painfully gone about figuring that out on my own. I offer my story as a small example. I hope others who may be struggling with the same problems might read this and shorten their suffering.

Do not let military service define you for the rest of your life. It’s something that we did, something to be proud of, but we cannot let a few years exercise tyrannical power over the other 70 or 80 years that we will live.

 

To the other article I mentioned above. I’ve been a fan of Phil Klay’s work since he published ‘Redeployment’. It’s a beautiful collection of short stories that capture the Iraq War from several perspectives. Truly something that should be widely read.

Klay’s NYTs piece is a lot to unpack, but I want to focus on one thing specifically – the story of Charles White Whittlesly.

**

Whittlesly was an officer who served in one of the Army’s most diverse units, part of the ‘Melting Pot Division’ that was formed of recruits from New York. An outlier in the US Army of 1917. He saw the unity that came of shared sacrifice. He saw that individual backgrounds didn’t matter, each soldier was an American in every sense. What Whittlesly witnessed was one identity forming out of many, the true American Exceptionalism. Our ideals and values are what people come to America for. It’s the mythology of equality and the fable of freedom unabridged that compels people to risk so much to become Americans.

Upon return to the States Whittlesly saw these ideals for the lies they so often are. American history is riddled with hypocrisy. We’ve turned out backs on the values we brag about too many times to count. The racism that fueled slavery is what provided an economic foundation for America. That ideology has never died and at times has roared to public embrace.

Post-WWI America was one such time. The Roaring’ 20s saw a spike in KKK membership,  public lynchings with no hope of justice, and non-white Veterans being pushed back to second class status at best, ripped apart and left on display at worse.

For all the high idealism Whittlesly experienced in the hellscape of No Man’s Land, it was a much gentler environment for non-white Americans than their homeland would be. The people Whittlesly would become friends with among the machine-gun serenade would return to an America of unspeakable violence of retribution designed to put minorities in their place. A righting of the social order.

Years of this broke Whittlesly, he ended his life jumping from a cruise ship destined for Havana.

Just like watching ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, reading Whittlesly’s story brought on a connection that bridged decades. The America I grew up believing in, the country whose uniform I wore, is not a country that I recognize anymore. Our wars have plodded on and our hysteria over terrorist threats have caused us to abandon our ideals. We are again debating what a ‘real American’ is. We are persecuting immigrants just as we did in the 1920s. Purity tests are being established, Federal officials are allowed to question citizenship status without any reasonable cause or evidence.

America of 2020 may very well be the America of 1920. We didn’t get this way overnight, it’s not even a single Administration’s doing. It’s a culmination of two decades of wars that we’ve been mostly too busy to pay attention to. Our reverence for Veterans is only outdone by our indifference to foreign policy. The slow erosion of civil liberties is barely noticed.

At one point, I looked around and realized that we were the Empire, that I was not serving a great Republic, but I was participating in the sinister deeds of a government intent on hoarding power and dictating how the world will work.

Hyperbole? Sure. But I felt it in my bones, just at Whittlesly had.

And just like Whittlesly I’ve had to contend with the dreadful knowledge of my country not being what I was taught it was. Knowing that some of the most sacred truths I held dear were platitudes doled out by those in power for the sake of keeping power.

Like Whittlesly I’ve fought with the demons of despair and depression. Infectious nihilism and an apathy that atrophies one’s will to live.

I’ve often considered my own cruise to Havana out of sheer hopelessness. I cannot stand the thought of all I hold dear being burned to ash.

My plea to you is to consider these stories. Think of how they repeat after every war America wages. And then ask yourself what you can do to break this cycle. Please do not spend Veterans Day wantonly expressing empty ‘Thank You For Your Service’ platitudes. Please do not make a show of your gratitude on social media. For the love of all that is good do not boast of your support for the troops. Do not do any of this if you are not willing to begin holding our government accountable for the needless death and slaughter that continues in your name. Don’t you dare engage in any solemn praise unless you are going to live up to the promise of all people being created equal, of inalienable rights and universal freedom.

If you want to honor Veterans, show us that America is what we all thought it was. Be engaged citizens. We need you to play your part in society. If you don’t, what we do doesn’t matter at all. We will be left with a Nation of Nihilism.

Until we meet again.

Blaggard in Iraq

What’s this? Two posts in one week? A model of consistency I am not. To my own detriment, but hey it’s not easy balancing a day job, household responsibilities, and trying to make this book thing happen on the side. Sometimes though I need to write to stay sane. These past couple days have been shit. Lots of self-loathing, anger, and feeling just plain useless. Winter has transitioned to day after day of grey skies and rain. My list of projects gets longer each day and everything is utterly overwhelming. I would like to just go to sleep for about 10 years.

I want to snap out of it and writing nearly always helps. To say my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders would be an understatement, so how about a light story today? Everyone needs to hit off the tee sometimes.

One of the cool things about Fort Hood is that Austin is just an hour away. Living in Killeen made the trip not quite direct, but after coming back from Iraq I lived in Temple which is right on the I-35. I was able to play beer league hockey and made some great friends. Austin is weird as fuck, and I loved it. Most of all though, the live music was truly amazing.

Being able to bar hop and take in a different band at each bar with no cover was a treat for me. I could spend all my days this way. Not so much for the drinking, but for the unending variety of music. Music that shakes your body with an assault of sonic waves is cleansing. The world melts away for me and life becomes simple. I’m a 16 year old kid at a local punk rock show again, and I’m a 35 year old, broke down old dude in search of a tribe.

Our favorite band was by far Blaggards. NOT The Blaggards…. just BLAGGARDS. They would play in Temple at O’Brien’s from time to time. My wife caught one of their shows and mentioned I was in Iraq. They gave her some freebies along with the merch  she bought to send to me. I slapped their sticker onto the door of my CHU at Camp Savage. It made it easier for me to remember which uniformly green door was mine when I had to get up in the middle of the night to hit the port-a-john. It also was a way for me to hit back against the crushing monotony of the Army. It was a way to show some individuality in a sea of olive drab. It was a way to thumb my nose at authority, even though being an officer inherently made me part of that Big Green Weenie machine.

Stout Irish Rock would help cleanse my spirit after a day of breathing a mix of stale air conditioned air inside and oil fire tinged, shit smelling air outside. I’m not joking about the shit either. The Iraqi Border Police academy that we we assigned to had a broken waste water system. The Border Police students and the National Police students who shared facilities would always know when we were going to show up and would greet us by lining up along the chain link fence to relieve themselves. A string of Iraqis 300 or 400 feet long with their pants down, backs leaning against the fence, and dropping brown snakes as a greeting. Top that off with navigating a series of shit piles as we got around the guard post at the pedestrian gate entrance. A guard post that faced inward to the Iraqi Army compound that encompassed everything.

Getting that waste treatment facility and a fresh water treatment facility on the Border Police grounds was something that fell on me, by the way. I’ll have to tell you that story some other time.

So after a long feces filled day books and music were a great relief. Blaggards gave an additional boost of being a piece of home as well. Sadly, we had to close down Camp Savage in early 2010 and move onto COB Basrah. That’s a rough transition from living remotely. It’s like going from the wild wild west to downtown of a large city. All of a sudden there were all these rules and regulations we had to follow and sergeants major who had nothing better to do than give anyone not in proper uniform the stink eye. Dude, fuck off I’m going to the shower in my five-fingered Hilton bathrobe and you can piss up a rope if you don’t like it.

Before leaving Camp Savage for the last time I made sure to snap a couple pictures in front of my CHU. One chance to preserve my mark, to document that I had my own Swamp just like Hawkeye. One more opportunity to be an arrogant cock. The picture of course made its way to Facebook, and after being properly tagged and shared the guys in Blaggards said they loved it. So that was cool.

Naturally after getting back stateside and beginning my next (and last) assignment at Fort Hood we went to see Blaggards at O’Brien’s. Also naturally, I printed off an 8×10 of that photo, signed it, and gave it to the band. Everyone gives the band an autographed photo of themselves, right? It was a great way to meet these guys and show my appreciate for their kind words and their music. They played no small part in maintaining my sanity in an environment that was anything but sane.

I still laugh at the thought that those CHUs were gifted to the Iraqi Army and that some Iraqi dude must have seen that stick and said ‘What the hell is Blaggars?’ Hope you enjoy Stout Irish Rock. It’d be great tunes to blast while taking the fight to some ISIS goat fuckers.

Till we meet again.

Hello again, let’s talk about loneliness

It’s been a while. If you’re a returning reader, thank you for being patient. If you’re new, you’re in for a wild one. 

I want to write about what influences my writing. I’ve extolled the virtues of Bob Ross before and today I’ll talk about Kurt Vonnegut. But first I need to address the long spell between blogs. I’ve made it a point to commit to more regular posts, to keeping a regular schedule, but I haven’t followed through. Life gets in the way for everyone, that’s no excuse. The last few months have been difficult and I’ve been struggling to keep symptoms of depression from shutting me down completely. 

There have been lots of ideas for topics, plenty of opportunities to write, but the motivation has not been there. The sense that anyone really cares about what I have to say, or that I’m adding anything worthwhile to the non-stop torrent of garbage on the Internet, has been absent. A general apathy started to engulf me, and that’s when I know depression is setting in. I’m lucky that it’s not worse, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t keep me from getting things done. That in turn just makes me feel worse and less motivated to do even the most mundane tasks, let alone sit down to the keyboard. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days where I’m happy. The energy to do anything beyond what is necessary just isn’t there. As much as I want to be writing some days it just isn’t something that I can find the time and headspace for. When this lingers my apathy extends to a general ambivalence towards life. I don’t get suicidal (for that I’m grateful) but there are times when the idea of death just doesn’t seem like that bad of a thing. I imagine lots of people get like that from time to time, but I wonder if it’s as normal as I rationalize it to be. 

That’s a scary place to reach. The self-awareness of it all makes this feeling seem like I’m watching somebody else. My inner monologue seems more like a narration of a character that I’m imagining rather than a person who is actually living. It feels like…. like being unstuck in time.

So it goes. And so I think of Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse 5 typically is the first book to come to mind. But also Palm Sunday. I think about Vonnegut’s post-war life and his own struggles with mental health and loneliness. Vonnegut was not physically isolated, but it’s  clear that he fought with mental isolation. This is almost worse as you are close to people you love and who love you back, but you feel distant. It’s hard to describe and harder still to break out of. You want to, but the words aren’t there. You mumble responses, shrug instead of speak, alternate between averting your eyes and staring blankly at nothing at all. 

I think about what Vonnegut meant when he wrote of smelling like mustard gas and roses. I picture him at his blue typewriter with an ashtray full of spent cigarettes and a glass of whiskey, neat. He’s finished writing for the day. Getting up from one chair, balancing a cigarette and the glass in one hand he walks to another chair. Set the glass down on a small round table top, take a drag from the fag, and pick up the phone to call on someone who might understand the queer things running through his mind. The things that scare him. Things that need to be said out loud to make them less terrifying. So that they may be outside and beaten down rather than inside and beating up.

I think about what Vonnegut thought of these troubles. What did he think of how other WWII vets were most certainly dealing with similar feelings and how they dealt with them? So much time has passed, but the isolation and loneliness reach across time. Vonnegut knew this, and that’s why he talked about it so much. Staying silent creates a feedback loop of loneliness. Speaking up isn’t so much about making myself feel better as much as it is about letting others with the same affliction know that they aren’t alone, even though they feel lonely. 

There was a time when I’d cover up the loneliness with a blanket of booze. A bottle or two of wine isn’t a thing as long as you wake up for PT and outrun some people. Having to stop at the store for another 6-pack after work each weekday isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not a problem if it’s not a full case. Facebook will keep me connected to friends, no need to make new ones. And who doesn’t love getting a drunk dial from me!?

It can be a challenge to see your struggles when your head is up your own ass. Looking at the cover picture I selected for this post I don’t laugh at it like I did when it was taken (Korea, 2007 or 2008). It kind of just makes me sad. I get a pit in my stomach. In spite of all the fun I did have in Korea it was still one of the loneliest times in my life. It was an odd mixture of excitement of being in fucking Korea (!) and having my own platoon to lead, and also feeling so utterly alone at times. Anger was ever present at Camp Casey, alcohol about the only way to cope for any of us. It was just normalized. That picture is the face of so many people who served at Camp Casey. It’s honest if ugly.

The pain and the creeping feeling of isolation don’t stop, but you find better ways of dealing with them. I binge on comics and Star Wars books now instead of booze. Instead of looking at the bottom of a bottle, I look for inspiration and something to create hope. And sometimes I just need to show myself some compassion and allow for the time to work through the darkness without adding on guilt for lack of accomplishment. 

Darkness is an old friend for many of us. Simon has no monopoly on that. When I feel it creeping I reach for comfort from healthier means now. That is something to at feel good about at least. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those things and it seemed appropriate to put that on paper, so to speak. I hope to soon make a trip to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which is in the process of relocating. Check the link out for details, and if you’d like to help them here’s another link. This isn’t any kind of sponsored content and I get nothing out of it. I only feel a deep sense of gratitude for Vonnegut and his work. If this helps others find him then I’ll have done something to fight that bastard called loneliness.

Thank you for your attention.

Until we meet again.

My year with the Dragon, Part II

It’s a terribly muggy week here in WNY, which actually reminds me of monsoon season in Korea but without the daily thunderstorm. Today I decided to take the laptop outside and try writing in the backyard. Bowie is coming through the speakers, I’ve got a large pot of coffee, and a cigar to help me channel my inner Twain. There’s a tasty breeze coming through and the grackles are enjoying the feast I left for them. The sun is out. Nature is alive and singing along with “Rebel, Rebel”. Squirrels scamper across my fence and leap spastically into the large maple tree.

This may all seem a digression, but I talk about mental health a good deal here and these outside friends as I call them play a key role in helping maintain my mental health. I thought it would be fun to paint the scene for you all, but also to talk about how simple things build the foundation of how I keep myself sane. It must look as if I spend hours just staring at nothing but the dance of sparrows, grackles, starlings, blue jays, cardinals, squirrels, and my dogs reminds me of the good things that exist. The daily chore of refilling feeders is a source of calmness. It’s a chance to do something in a mindful way. A way to stay in touch with my Franciscan roots, and it connects me to the world around me. Birding has made me more aware of the ebbs and flows of nature. Migratory patterns bring new birds from time to time, learning about them helps to make me recognize the delicate balance of our world and the role we play. It is a way to practice the Stoic exercise of taking a view from above as well. So you see, this simple act is much more for me.

Alright, onto the task at hand. I don’t want to make this a totally linear story of my time in Korea. That would be tedious and boring. Going on a month to month play by play doesn’t tell a fun story, and I really wouldn’t be able to hit on every single thing either. If anything is certain, it is that I will forget things. Some mundane and some important, but the upside to our fallible memories is that you’ll have a reason to keep coming back here! So today I thought I would expand on what I wrote in Part 1 about expat friends and another funny story or two from Camp Casey.

Some of those friends who I’ve stayed in contact with reacted to Part 1 and reminded me of some unlikely stories of how we met. As I reflected on them it occurred to me that they are perfect examples of how crazy and adventurous that year was. So here they are for your reading pleasure.

Yongsan electronics market was a favorite place to go explore. It was essentially a large train station with a 9 story mall built above. This place summed up Korea perfectly. It wasn’t like an American mall with stores placed without thought on whatever floor. This was strictly electronics, even the furniture sold there was in many ways more electronics than couch. Each floor was dedicated to one or two different products with vendors arranged not in sequestered store fronts but with their individual floor spaces in an open environment. Imagine an American office building with a cube farm set up, but with each cube being about 20’x20’ of display cases where the clerks would compete openly with each other. You could wander around an entire floor and find essentially all the same things, but the fun was in the negotiation. Offering the advertised price was a sign of ignorance, everything was negotiable and it was expected that you would dicker for a better deal.

So one floor would be all digital cameras, another floor for computers, one for electronic furniture, one for musical instruments, one for TVs. There was a great movie theater as well, and a food court where I decided to try a dish called ‘Fire Chicken’. I shit you not that plate came out to the table on fire! The waiter warned me to order something else as this dish was even too spicy for many Koreans to eat it. Implied was that Americans couldn’t stand the spicy foods enjoyed by Koreans. Of course that made me double down. I finished about half that plate through pure stubbornness and popped Tums for a week.

After one trip to this magical place with my buddy and fellow PL, Remington, we were standing outside the front entrance talking about where to go next. There was a musical performance going on outside the station that we watched for a bit while trying to wait out some rain. Out of nowhere came Maria. She was still in her first month in Korea as an English teacher and was kind of lost. She asked to borrow one of our phones as her phone had died and she had no way of getting in touch with her friend that she was supposed to meet. Being an officer and a gentleman I happily obliged.

After finishing her call we all stood around for a bit just talking and watching the music and dancing troupe. As it turned out Maria was from the same city in Maryland as my college roommate Phil, who also happened to be my next door neighbor at Camp Casey. We were both still pretty new to Korea and having found a common bond we exchanged phone numbers and stayed in contact. Maria ended up hanging in similar social circles and played for the Seoul Sisters RFC. We ended up sharing many pints and stories throughout that year, all because of an off chance meeting.

There were plenty of other weguks (foreigners) on that plaza that Maria could have approached. Against the odds she came up to a guy just as out of place as her with a somewhat hometown connection. We still laugh about that from time to time, such an odd coincidence that led to a friendship formed over rugby and the shared adventure of being so far from home.

Now if that was the strangest story of making a friend in Korea it wouldn’t be a surprise. Life has a magnificent sense of humor though.

Part 1 mentions Pub Scrooges. It was where the Seoul Survivors hung out and had post-match socials. It became a regular haunt for me whether I was down in Seoul with friends from Camp Casey or if I just went down on my own. It was a place I knew I’d find friends to share a pint with and leave Army life behind. One night at Scrooges, as I was out doing what most 23 year old guys do, I was chatting with a beautiful baby (mandatory Swingers reference) and getting along better than I usually did. I was sitting at a long table when someone tapped my shoulder. Turning around to face the guy sitting behind me, I was told ‘Hey, she wants to talk to you.” He was pointing to another woman opposite him who was sitting on the bench that lined the back wall. Also quite lovely, I was stunned at my good luck that night.

Unsure how to handle this I tried to gracefully excuse myself from the conversation I was in the middle of so that I could talk to this other girl while not turning off the first girl. Without even introducing herself girl #2 said “Did you go to Bonas?” I was stunned at this and looked down at my chest to see if I had been wearing a SBU shirt. Confirming I wasn’t I looked back up and said that I did and asked how she guessed. Turns out Amanda recognized me from Bonas and told me that we had actually met at a townhouse party a couple years ago. Now Bonas had about 2,200 students while I was there, my graduating class numbered around 600. Somehow Amanda, who was also a 2006 grad, was sitting at a rugby pub less than 10 feet from me, 6,600 miles away from where we first met. I vaguely remembered the party and apologized for my hazy (drunken) memory. Finding another Bonnie so far from home I forgot all about the girl I had been talking to and joined Amanda’s table.

We talked over a few pints, retracing our Bonas connections and laughed a lot over how strange it was that we ran into each other. Seoul is similar in size to NYC, so on top of the long odds of us both being in Korea was the extra layer of being in the same pub that night. Well, turns out Amanda was there because she too was a Seoul Sister and had played rugby at Bonas. People often say it’s a small world, this certainly takes the cake. It also shows how the connections we make and circles we hang out in follow us everywhere. If not for rugby neither of us would have been there that night. If not for a few mutual friends at a small university in middle-of-nowhere, NY Amanda would have never recognized me and we might have never talked to each other in spite of frequently being at Scrooges.

I think about these friendships now and then and it still amazes me. I’ve not seen either Maria or Amanda since leaving Korea, but we’ve stayed in contact through the miracle of Facebook. Say what you will about StalkerBook, it has served me well in staying connected to people that I’ve met in so many places. Staying in loose contact with those friends from Korea has made the experience so much better. It’s made these people friends for life rather than friends for a year who become memories you sometimes think of. I’m so grateful for these experiences. There are plenty of bad times from my service, remembering these good things makes the bad times worth it. Without them I would focus on all the negative memories and emotions, which would suck me into an abyss of anger. It’s easy to feel like those years were wasted and pointless when I watch the news. Looking back on the friends made and good times shared is just as important as feeding my outside friends. It lets me know that my life has been well lived and that more adventures remain. It keeps me hopeful and breaks the grip of despair that creeps into my mind. Living in the past can be deadly, showing gratitude for your past can help you to move forward with optimism of great things to come.

You were promised a funny story too. How about the time I nearly caught a beating for being gay (spoiler, I’m not).

On another outing with Remington we went exploring Uijongbu. Only about 30 minutes from Camp Casey, Uijongbu is a medium sized city that offered some of the escape that Seoul did but with half the train ride, so you could do it and get back to Casey before curfew. We weren’t out to party though, we went to check out some of the open air fish markets and the underground mall. Remington bought a bunch of fish and squid (nasty), I found a shirt that screamed 80’s hair metal to me and had to buy it. This thing was black with gold splashed around, shiny, and a weird texture that was a cross between silk and rubber. It was just the kind of thing I needed for my next Poison concert. Happy with our finds we headed back to Casey and decided to head out to the Ville that night.

Of course I wore the shirt!

Hitting up a couple of juicy bars in the Ville always carried an element of danger. They were dirty, seedy places where trouble found you. Who wouldn’t love it? We were at the Mustang Club and a group of juicy girls walked up from behind me, one saying ‘hello’ by giving me a reach around. Taken off guard I jumped, spun around, and let juicy know that I wasn’t interested. They hung around for a while though because…… they loved my shirt. They kept feeling my shirt and started call me Snake Man (I still call it the Snake Man shirt) and put in a pretty strong effort to get us to buy their nights – the prostitution part works by ‘buying the night’ or paying the club owner for the rest of the girl’s shift to compensate for lost beverage sales – but we wanted none of that. The girls went away after a bit and we went back to shooting the shit over our beers.

Not too long after this four guys who were wasted and stumbling approached us. One put his finger in my chest and started rambling about how he hate ‘our kind’. He said something to the effect of ‘what are you two, the kind that stays silent but likes to flaunt it (being gay) in everyone’s faces’. We knew there wasn’t a way to talk ourselves out of this. Like I said, trouble finds you.

When we walked into the Mustang that night we saw a few of the NCOs from our battery in the back. As we were being surrounded at the bar I looked over to their table and saw they were watching, so I waved. Six more guys from our battery walked over, all of equal or greater size than those who were looking to start some shit. G, who was 6 foot and an easy 270 pounds of muscle and gut, tapped on the shoulder of the guy who had been accosting me, looked down on him, and simply asked if there was any trouble. As these guys realized they were now outnumbered and surrounded they slinked away and trouble was avoided. Remington and I happily bought drinks for our NCOs the rest of the night. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to get out of that without a beating and probably a shitload of trouble with the MPs, something that could have easily ended our careers even though we didn’t do anything.

So that’s how close I came to getting beat for being gay. All’s well that ends well, right? What I’d say about that now is that it was a lesson in empathy. It was a terrifying insight into the bullshit that gay men still face. Sometimes you truly need to be put into such a situation to grow as a person. Anyone who doesn’t understand why Gay Pride is celebrated needs to only be in my shoes that night to have their eyes opened. Mine sure were.

 

When I started this last Saturday I didn’t plan for such a multi-part story. I’ve only started to scratch the surface of this year in Korea. Looks like we’ll have at least a Part III and maybe a Part IV. Who else is excited!? If you’re confused at all about the title I’ve chosen for this series check out this video. It’s totally NSFW but in a lot of ways sums up being stationed at Camp Casey. Just imagine the dragon is USFK.

Until we meet again…

My year with the Dragon, Part I

June has been an eventful month for me over the past dozen years or so. Facebook memories have popped up that reminded me just how life altering this month has been for me over the years. I was promoted to captain, got engaged to my wife, and reported to Fort Riley, KS to begin training as a military advisor in June of 2009. I also had 3 PCSs that fell in June. I began terminal leave in June 2011, and moved back to NY at that time. My first active duty assignment began on June 1, 2006.

Two of those permanent change of station movements were my assignment to Korea and my departure from Korea. Those happened on June 4, 2007 and June 3, 2008, 366 days that were the most impactful on my life out of any other year. Exploring Korea, broadening my mind and growing as a person, meeting people from so many different countries through rugby, and most importantly, being a platoon leader made for one busy year. The apprehension, excitement, fear, anger, enjoyment, and raw exhilaration of being 23 and half way across the globe are difficult to sum up in words. I’ll give it my best….

But first, let me address the 3 month gap between posts. I truly strive for consistency here, both in quality of my writing and in timeliness of postings. March and April brought on a brief spell of depression. I couldn’t bring myself to really do much of anything, and would then become frustrated over being so unproductive. Not just here but with simple things around the house. Everything was just too much to take on or not worth it. Apathy is the worst part of depression to me. It’s a black hole. I shook it off after a few weeks, but by then so much had piled up that it has been hard to find the energy to sit down and write, even as more and more topics came to mind. Lots of other things have been going on as well and it’s been very hard to block out some time to get back to writing. In short – life gets in the way. I apologize for the inconsistency and length between posts. I hope you’ll find this worth the wait.

Alright, so I spent one year in Korea. Originally my orders had me going to Osan Air Base, which was a really posh gig for an Army guy. In the end I spent one day at Osan. Through an odd quirk of timing I arrived at Osan about 13 months after those orders were cut. Following graduation/commissioning I was on temporary assignments for a year, mostly schools, and so when I got to Osan the 35th ADA brigade had just gone through a reorganization where the brigade HQ was under permanent orders to Korea (roughly 150 people) but the subordinate battalions were on one year rotations from their permanent homes stateside. So the majority of lieutenant slots within the brigade were not slots that I could be assigned to and there was no room for me in the HQ. The only air defense unit that I could go to was the Avenger battery up at Camp Casey which was recently moved from under the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade (that’s field artillery). After sorting out all this HR mess I was put back on a bus and sent up to Casey, 11 miles south of the DMZ.

My first week in Korea consisted of an 18 hour flight, being bused from Inchon airport to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the next day getting some briefings and inoculations for smallpox and anthrax (a 6 shot series), the next day getting bused a couple hours south to Osan, the next day being turned around and sent a few hours back north, and finally on day five reporting to my first line unit. One upside to my reassignment being so oddly done is that I got in under the radar and avoided a two week orientation to Area 1 (the US bases north of Seoul) which was at Camp Red Cloud if I remember correctly. So that saved me some annoyance and another temporary move while I lugged around a ton of baggage with me.

The rest of June and July were mostly spent getting to know the men in my platoon, building a relationship with my platoon sergeant, and spending the weekends exploring the local area around Camp Casey – Dongducheon- or partying in Seoul. One of the other LTs who was getting ready to leave showed some of us around and introduced me to his suit guy in Seoul. Jokeman was the kind of tailor who you needed to be introduced to by a current customer. His shop was in the basement of a nondescript building in Itaewon (the area right outside Yongsan Garrison). It gave you the feeling of knowing a great secret and being a trusted insider to walk down those stairs and into Jokeman’s place. He made fantastic ‘Armani’ suits and would always say that his dream was to be a great comedian like Jim Carey. That was kind of odd though as he was older than Jim Carey. Whenever you stopped in Jokeman gave you one free joke, and he had a map of the US hanging up so you could show him where you were from. Over 12 months I bought three suits, 2 cashmere overcoats, and 2 handmade scarves from Jokeman, because single LTs have more money than sense.

The single best thing I did during this time was spend time with my platoon sergeant. Clester Slater was a recently pinned sergeant first class in his first gig as a PSG and close to the end of his time in Korea. That combination would probably be terrible with most people, but Clester was the best NCO I ever worked with. The couple months I got to share with him leading our platoon had more of an impact on me as a young leader than the other 10 months I had with two other PSGs. There were a couple of really simple, seemingly insignificant things I did that helped build a good rapport. One was showing up for a uniform inspection. It wasn’t something I thought twice about doing along with the rest of the platoon, but Clester seemed surprised that I participated and that my uniform wasn’t all messed up. The other big thing in hindsight is that I spent time in the motor pool talking to my guys, having them show me around their Avengers, and just shooting the shit with Clester. We’d pass Mondays sitting in a conex (storage container) in the motor pool just talking. It allowed him to teach me about maintenance programs, all the paperwork, how to spot when someone was bullshitting you, and to watch over the platoon without micromanaging. Lots of fundamental knowledge was passed on from him this way. I was fortunate.

All these things seemed like no-brainers to me. I couldn’t think of what a PL would do otherwise, but I saw plenty who didn’t. The simple things made big impacts. That’s something I’ve kept with me over the years and I’m thankful that I learned it early on.

August came and brought with it being detailed out to a joint US/Korean exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens. About once a quarter there are big joint exercises that are largely computer simulations. These are the exercises the North Korean dictators are always complaining about and are currently suspended. It was pretty boring but I got to meet a couple more LTs that became friends. The extra special facet was that as soon as this three week exercise ended my battery was rolling out for a semi-annual gunnery exercise. So for three weeks straight I was working 12 on/12 off shifts and then had to take my platoon out for my first gunnery exercise. These are make or break kinds of things for a PL, and I was able to get released from the UFL exercise a couple days early so that I could at least make sure my platoon was prepared.

This gunnery was the first big field exercise I had with my platoon. I wanted to show that I was competent and I wanted to impress. This exercise was for our Avenger crews to qualify with the .50 cal machine guns and it took place at a Korean facility called Nightmare Range. The range itself was actually beautiful. The .50 cals are so powerful that you have to have a range complex that is several square kilometers in size. Nightmare Range was essentially a valley where you would shoot from one side to the other. If it wasn’t being used for military drills it could probably be a national park. The real nightmare was in getting there. We always drove at night to minimize the risks of mixing with civilian traffic. The roads we had to take were the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. Blind turns, barely any light, sheer cliffs with 100 foot drops. Riding shotgun I could look out my door window and peer into a pitch black bottomless pit. But that meant the terrifying part was out of the way up front.

The rest of the range went off with no major snags. It was a good introduction to how field exercises in Korea went. Every time you went to the field a ‘Field Ma’ would show up and set up a tent and cook. It was kind of like having a food truck follow you out to work. Ma (short for ajumma) would make things like ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and stocked tons of candy and cold drinks. The peach water and Mr. Big bars were my favorite, red bean popsicles are no joke either. As long as you were on Korean military land you had a Ma nearby. Luckily for me my unit never did much field training on American installations.

The fall rolled on and into winter. Camp Casey is on roughly the same line of latitude as western NY, so with the exception of the monsoon season in summer everything was pretty familiar. There were some trips to Busan, which entailed riding the bullet train and violating several command directives about local travel and curfew. Busan being at the very southern tip of the peninsula and a couple hours from any US installation meant that there was no way to go there without violating curfew. It also meant that you could feel like a normal person. The beaches of Busan were salvation. This was another circle of expat friends that I stumbled upon through mutual Army friends.

The expats in Korea were usually from English speaking countries who were in country to teach English. I met a lot through playing rugby, something new for me in Korea. I fell in love with the sport and its focus on hard competition and sportsmanship. Enjoying the game was only part of it, the post-match socials were what made a community. We sometimes hosted the Seoul Survivors up at Camp Casey, other times we would travel, and sometimes I’d whore it up with the Survivors. There was a women’s side named the Seoul Sisters too. Between the Survivors and the Sisters I made great friends that I still talk to today. They were always welcoming and happy to help me when I needed a place to crash. They were a collection of expats from the US, Canada, UK, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. Through my club, the 2ID Warriors RFC, I also met a South African who joined the Army.

The connections I made through rugby were stronger than those I made from work. Camaraderie in the Army is highly touted, but within my unit there were only a few guys I really hung out with. Even when we weren’t playing I’d pop down to Seoul for a few pints at Pub Scrooge’s and maybe head out to Hongdae, an off limits section of Seoul. There were holiday parties (Halloween and Christmas stand out!) and dodgeball tournaments. I learned about Aussie and Kiwi culture and gained a more international outlook on life. My rugby friends, both Army and expat, were who I spent most of my weekends with. They’re the friendships that helped to shape me, some of them are people I still look up to, a few made life altering changes on who I am. I owe a great debt to these people. If not for rugby I’m not sure I’d be quite the person I am today.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a break. I didn’t realize at the beginning that I’d have so much to write just about this one year. There’s more I could have included here, but maybe that’s best left for print instead of blog. If you haven’t already, check my post about my Thanksgiving in Korea. I hope this entertained you and gave some more insight into Army life by the DMZ. If there’s anything you’d like to know more about leave a comment or shoot me an email through the Contact page. Next week – Part 2, I promise.

Until we meet again….

Becoming a Bonnie

March Madness is here and it’s raised up so much emotion. I really enjoy college basketball, but what’s caused this recent rollercoaster isn’t the tournament itself, getting to see St. Bonaventure playing in the Big Dance and the outpouring from fellow alumni has been a tidal wave this past week. In an example of Facebook’s fundamental value, an alumnus started a group specifically around the March Madness run of the Bonnies which quickly grew to about 4,000 alumni. The group shared support of the team, but also many stories of why they decided to go to Bonas, why it is such a special place, and we all got to see the Bonaventure Bond in full court press as people who didn’t know each other felt that special connection.

So today I want to share my own story of coming to Bonas, how it changed me, and why I am eternally grateful to call myself a Bonnie. I’ve written in general terms about Bonas when explaining my route to commissioning, but today I’m going to share some not often shared stories to explain why I ended up at Bonas and how it remade me.

I had strong feelings about fairness, justice, and defending the defenseless formed at a young age. A steady diet of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles combined with adoration of my Uncle Joe’s service in World War II molded my young mind. So much so that when I was about 7 I decided that it was my job to protect the neighborhood. One summer morning I packed up my backpack with toy handcuffs, Ninja Turtle weapons like sais, nunchucks, and Leonardo’s swords, and probably some toy guns – my crime fighting kit. I tied off my bandana and set off to patrol the neighborhood. Walking the beat on the blocks surrounding my HQ (house) and finding no bad guys I returned after maybe 15 or 20 minutes to find my dad losing his mind. I got yelled at pretty good for leaving the house without telling anyone and how worried he was that I’d been kidnapped. I calmly explained I was just out on patrol and couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong – but that was the last time I did that.

As you probably guessed, I was a weird kid. I was also perennially undersized and socially awkward which led to a lot of bullying. In what was probably an overprotective move my parents switched me from the local public elementary school after second grade and I started at the Catholic school. How anyone would think that would result in less bullying kind of amazes me in hindsight. I never fit in there, partly because I also didn’t want to be there. Some of the kids tried to be friendly, but over the course of the year I just felt isolated and never fully part of the class. Fortunately I would be with the same group of kids as long as I was at this school! So I coped by keeping to myself, being suspicious of anyone who approached me, never really trusting others. This ebbed and flowed, but it was mostly pretty crappy.

Like most elementary school classes there were two or three kids that were just absolute douches. These guys were my tormentors. One morning during 5th grade one of them approached me by the coat rack. He was about a foot taller than me and had me cornered as he made weird moaning noises and thrusted his pelvis at me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and something just snapped. Without thinking I just punched him in the gut as hard as I could. That knocked the wind out of the kid, his face turned red and he was completely shocked. The teacher came to sort things out. I ended up getting after school detention that day, essentially punishing me for defending myself. Again, with hindsight that kind of makes sense for a Catholic school.

That’s more or less how early childhood went for me. Lots of isolation and feeling like an outsider, never really finding a place I fit in until I discovered punk music in high school.  Still though, I had no personal connections. I felt no great pride in my hometown or high school, friends and social circles were always fluid. I protected myself by walling myself off. JROTC was what saved me from being a total failure in high school. A few recent graduates had gone on to St. Bonaventure, winning ROTC scholarships. My JROTC was an informal feeder for Bonas ROTC, and this was my path. This was my hope for escaping a hometown I hated and finding my place in the world.

So in August of 2002 I arrived at St. Bonaventure. A place that, in the early unchecked days of Wikipedia, was described as being widely known to be the greatest place on Earth (it is). Boy was I a mess when I got there, that much should be clear by now. On top of the social problems I had growing up I was also raised in a very traditional Catholic worldview coated in a healthy dose of racism. While hanging out in the punk scene helped correct some of that, it’s fair to say I got to Bonas still thinking homosexuality was a repugnant defect and looked at minorities with suspicion. Those things that get ingrained in you from birth are hard to overcome.

Secured in the Bona Bubble, those ugly aspects of my character faded. I had finally found my place, safe and at peace. Bonas immediately felt like home, it’s what made up my mind to go there during a campus visit. The first time I drove in, seeing the Spanish tiled roofs appear as the car crested a hill there was a sense of serenity. I had my bumps during freshman year, but eventually found a group of friends that I could trust. I let my guard down and felt normal for the first time, knowing that I could be myself without fear of ridicule. These same friends also called me on my bullshit. They helped me see how wrong the views I was raised on were. This was the family that I’d always needed.

Ask me where my home is and who my family is and I’ll tell you my home is Bonaventure (Townhouse 33 specifically) and my family is made up of Bonnies. My roommates are my brothers. The bonds made with friends from Bonas are tighter than those I have with most blood relatives. That’s why when I find out a friend from Bonas has a baby, and is without any baby Bona gear, I happily drive the 75 miles to campus to buy a onesie to mail out with my congratulations and love.

I have no greater affinity for anything in my life than St. Bonas. Not my hometown, not my high school friends, and not even the Army. Bonas is the sole place in my story where I felt so right. Bad decisions may have been made every weekend, but never a bad memory. Bonas is where I left behind the shy, stand-offish kid I was and became Timmerzzz. A nickname that I reveled in given to me by some of my stoner friends. I decided to spell it with three Z’s solely so that when someone asked me why I spelled it that way I could then say ‘Because I roll Three Z’s Deep, motherfucker!” A long way from who I was at 18.

Bonas also turned me into a more thoughtful and compassionate person. The ideas, biases, and worldview I entered with were not the ones I left with. At Bonas I was exposed to new ideas, new people, and was forced to expand my critical thinking. The changes were dramatic in scope and swiftness. A liberal arts education is often looked at as needless. I’d argue it’s absolutely necessary if you want to be a complete person. Classes in critical thinking & writing, philosophy and logic, studying the classical world, and majoring in history all combined to give me essential skills for understanding the world around me. I was able to see my own flaws and confront them.

True, this happens at many universities. What makes St. Bonaventure special is the people. Sitting along the Allegany River, the campus’s southern boundary, and overlooked by the Enchanted Mountains with Merton’s Heart guiding you, there is no place more peaceful. St. Bonas is a Catholic Franciscan school. For those unfamiliar with this tradition Franciscans are often called the Hippies of the Catholic Church. While they aren’t promoting Free Love, they are the most friendly people I’ve met. Full of joy and love for nature the friars were a gregarious group that wanted nothing more than to share their happiness with you. What I felt there was the same safety and comfort that I’d known at my Uncle Joe’s house.

The people. That’s the heart of this place we Bonnies love so dearly. The tranquility of the campus is infectious. You cannot help but be happy when you’re there, and that attitude feeds off itself. Walking around campus you are greeted with smiles and warmness, even when the wind chill is below zero. You bond in the shared isolation of St. Bonaventure’s geography, basketball, and beer. Bonaventure, basketball, beer. It seems simple and lacking, yet the simplicity of it is what brought us together. These were the things that mattered, the essentials. Anything else didn’t matter. You’re a Bonnie? Awesome, you’re my friend. Any other label you can put on a person disappears. If they bleed Brown and White you’re family.

So why was this chance to Dance so important? In the 2002-2003 season, my freshman year, there was a scandal that nearly destroyed the basketball program. The proud legacy of Bob Lanier and the 1970 Final Four team was overshadowed by a coach, athletic director, and university president who signed off on a junior transfer who had only a welding certificate and not an associates degree. This blew up with two games left in the season. All wins were vacated, the remaining players refusing to play, coach and AD fired, university president resigned, NCAA post-season ban (5 years I think?) and lost scholarships. During that summer the president of the board of trustees hanged himself. These were dark times for what had been a point of pride for the Bonaventure community. The team didn’t have another A-10 victory until my junior year (against Rhode Island) and that got us to storm the court. There had even been talk of dropping to a lower conference or out of D1 all together. Part of what bonded us so tightly was now something you’d rather forget about (like 4 straight Super Bowl losses).

So this past week when SBU was back in the Big Dance, all of us in the Bona family were dancing. Redemption is sweet. Sharing it with such a large family makes your chest swell and your eyes well. Both are happening as I write this.

We all love St. Bonaventure. I love it because it saved me. It took a scared, untrusting, and angry kid and turned him into a man who is thoughtful and compassionate. No longer ignorant and hateful but aware of the world around me and accepting. I’m not always the person that I strive to be, but I am proud of the person I’ve become. While I’m no longer Catholic, St. Bonaventure and St. Francis still guide me.

The spirit of Bonas molded me into a good person. That light is the gift that each of us Bonnies brings to the world.

Pax et bonum. Go Bonas!

Where it started

Nearly 17 years later how does this make you feel? My stomach still knots up. My skin turns clammy, mouth dry, hands turn into vices. My eyes well up and my chest burns. I still cannot watch videos of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then again, I saw that scene replay on CNN and Fox News on that prophetic day so much that it’s burned into my memory. Every camera angle, over and over again. Each time hoping that the plane would turn away. Seeing the grotesque collision belching flames and broken glass shattering everything that I knew.

I was 17.

I grabbed the books I needed for my next two classes, closed up my locker, and walked on to math class. My normal routine since senior year started the previous week (the school year starts after Labor Day in NY). A friend stopped me and asked if I had heard the news. He said terrorists had crashed a plane into both of the Twin Towers in the City. I shrugged it off because making up a joke like that would’ve been normal for him. As I walked the few hundred feet to math I heard some teachers talking about the attacks, trying to keep their voices quiet. By the time I got to class I realized it was true. Still, I hadn’t seen it yet. TVs were only in a few of the classrooms, most were only set up to play VHS tapes anyway. The day went on with updates trickling in. It wasn’t until after 3:00 when I got home that I finally saw the full scale of the horror.

More than 2,700 dead when the Towers collapsed. Another 200 plus at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. The towers burned and then gave out under their own weight. People who were cut off on floors above the crashes jumped to their deaths. Hundreds remained trapped in elevators they rode at the time of the crashes until the buildings fell upon them. Cable news mercilessly replayed the crashes in the corner of your TV while their live coverage continued. We relived the trauma of planes gracefully gliding in the air and then slamming into buildings dozens of times that day. We saw the sickening implosion of the Twin Towers and people fleeing on the street, covered in dust, blood, and tears.

I had known that I was going to apply for an ROTC scholarship before starting senior year. If no scholarship was offered I would enlist in the Army. Camouflage was already in my future, now conflict was too. Senior year of high school became an exercise in passing time. I knew what was ahead of me and just wanted to get there.

A scholarship was won and the following August I began four years of education and training to become an officer. I became part of Year Group 2006, which would become the first year group of officers to have been cadets in a war time Army for all four years of college since the Vietnam War. The suddenness of our transition from peace time to war time was quite queer.

The group of seniors at Bonas who were about to commission in 2003 seemed larger than life in some ways. It was clear that many of them were exceptional and would become great leaders. One would go on to be awarded the Soldiers Medal for his actions during the Fort Hood shooting in 2014. That group set a high bar for my class. We were fortunate to have them as role models. This was something I took for granted, only later realizing how uncommon this was.

St. Bonaventure was a serene place to find yourself. It was safe and welcoming. I became more confident, less introverted, more outgoing. There was tremendous personal growth. The whole time the specter of 9/11 hung overhead. Constant reminders of what caused our current conflict drove me, fueled deep seeded anger. That anger and hatred of our enemy clouded my judgement around the build up to invading Iraq. I was a typical American in that regard. Still stinging from the terrorist attacks and wanting a grand battle, something that Afghanistan could never be, I went along with the excuses to invade and initiate a regime change.

I remember being issued a Kevlar helmet shortly before the invasion started. When news broke of the first bombs dropping on Baghdad I strapped the helmet on and started running around the dorm floor. As the bombs fell I saw my future and grew excited at the prospect of getting my chance to get there to do my part. Shock and awe gave me a hard on. I was fanatical. I suppose that’s what you’d expect from a sheltered 18 year old. Oddly, being a freshman at the time of the invasion provided enough time to sour on the decision and become cynical by 2006.

Seeing the war in Iraq become a muddy counter insurgency and the floundering of our hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan made me wonder just what was waiting for me after commissioning. The incompetence and outright stupidity of so many of our military and political leaders left me feeling helpless. I could see the futility of war playing out, but at the same time I knew that it would become my job to execute those plans. I did my part as a good future leader and kept studying doctrine and field manuals, reading all the right books about grand strategy and foreign policy, working out twice a day (mostly). My duty was to prepare myself and then do my best in whatever assignment was handed to me. Being a cadet at that time was an odd mix of having the freedom to be critical and speak freely while knowing that I would become part of the machine executing and promoting a failed strategy. Kind of like wearing a helmet with ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on one side and a peace symbol pinned on the other side.

All the while the anger born of 9/11 remained, compounded by the anger over the administration’s failures. Keeping busy with school and looking forward to what parties were in store each week made the time pass. Allowing my chest to puff and head to swell off of the lines fed us about our greatness and bravery for volunteering during war time built up an unhealthy ego. Added to that was an unrealistic idea of what life in the Army would be like. Our ROTC instructors had a completely different experience of Army life, having 10 – 15 years of mostly peace time service they painted a picture based on that experience. By the time we all got out into the real Army it was a rude awakening to the realities of an Army that had been in a war footing for 5 years.

Disillusionment was a foregone conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any possible future for us that would end any other way. We were excited, patriotic, driven to serve a higher purpose, defend freedom. These things were not what we would end up doing. To make matters worse for me, the Army branched me in Air Defense Artillery. The Taliban and al-Queda didn’t exactly have air threats that needed to be defended against. The branch had been marginalized, it amounted to about 2% of the Army, and there was no real shooting mission for it in the Global War on Terrorism. CRAM did become operational towards the end of my tenure, but SHORAD – the more traditional soldiering part of ADA – was dying when I commissioned.

I had a difficult time accepting all this and kept looking for a way to get in the fight. I tried to transfer to Armor branch (tanks and cavalry) but ADA wouldn’t release me. I applied for Civil Affairs, only to get the rejection letter on my birthday. Finally I called my branch manager (they’re like career advisors) and said my separation packet would be coming to his desk if I couldn’t get an assignment to a Military Transition Team. Another odd twist of timing, the MTT assignments were winding down, with only two more cohorts planned. My branch manager had to make a deal with Field Artillery branch to swap out slots so that I could get the assignment, but he came through. Three years after commissioning, 8 years after 9/11, I finally had my piece of the fight.

The MTT assignment turned out to be a BTT – Border Transition Team. The Army had decided that few Iraqi Army units still needed embedded military advisors and had shifted focus to the Iraqi Border Police and the National Police to help build up those aspects of the Iraqi civil defenses. Our military advisor training started at Fort Riley, KS in mid-June and lasted about 90 days. In September we boarded planes in Topeka and headed to Kuwait. Stepping out of the plan the nasty air smacked me. Early morning local time, I was finally in the shit. It was September 11, 2009.

The 11 man team that I was on would be military advisors to a Border Police academy in Basra. The cadre of the academy all had more experience than any of us. Most had served the Iraqi military in some form for 20 or more years. I was paired up with a colonel who was in charge of the academy’s training plans and doctrine. Most days I just drank chai with him and talked about our families. We both knew that there was little I could offer. Fortunately my advisee did not begrudge me. I probably learned more from him than he would ever learn from me. It was another chance for me to grow through building an understanding of the Iraqi culture and history as related by this colonel. We would occasionally exchange gifts. He knew I liked the native dates and I knew, from the captain I replaced, that he enjoyed blue Gatorade. I also found the English/Arabic Koran I had kept from one of my classes at Bonaventure and gave it to the colonel. He was studying English and I knew he would appreciate the book more than I would. These days passed slowly.

Eventually one of the other BTTs from our cohort got reassigned and we picked up their responsibilities in Basra. We began advising a battalion of Border Police commandos. They were kind of like a SWAT team for the Border Police. Not long after this Iran seized a small oil field on the Iraq/Iran border. It fell within the area of responsibility for the commandos and they started rotating units out there in what was essentially a Mexican stand off with the Iranian Army. Finally a chance for us to get in on some sort of real action! We looked at several options for transport out to the oil field, with the only feasible option being helicopters. In the end there wasn’t leadership support for this, so we remained in Basra and continued with our limited engagement with our partner units.

Then the deployment ended. My T.E. Lawrence dreams faded. Any thoughts of doing something of meaning were over. Just one more exercise in futility. Youth wasted. Anger remained.

As I typed the first sentence of this post, it shocked me to realize that as many years have gone by since September 11, 2001 as had gone by in my life before 9/11. That 9/11 effectively marks the half way point in my life, and the beginning of my adult life, is distressing. Knowing that the post-9/11 world will forevermore be the majority of my own life is a hard thing to swallow. Every new day makes my pre-9/11 existence seem smaller and smaller. The innocence of youth all that more distant and unknown. Barely old enough to know the world before the world was torn down.

I imagine these are the same feelings that veterans of World War I must have felt. Plucked from their sleepy lives, far removed from any notion of globalization, they were tossed into a cauldron of boiling blood and severed limbs. Before they could understand what was happening, it was over, and then they were supposed to get on with life. Over the years WWI and the interwar period began to make more sense to me than the post-WWII years. The demons haunting Hemingway seem more real than the V-E/V-J day euphoria. The desire to dive into Gatsbian gaiety because the only thing that makes sense is absurdity feels more visceral.

Howdy Doody, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith – are you fucking kidding me!? More like Aunt Bee gives Barney Fife a Cleveland Steamer while Wally and Beaver double team Miss Canfield and Buffalo Bob turns Howdy Doody into a fleshlight that pukes white. That seems more recognizable having grown up in a post-9/11 world.

A memory often comes to mind these days. Sitting at the kitchen table with my Uncle Joe, (who manned the top turret of a B-17 in 1943 – ’44) when I was in my early teens, talking about Vietnam. I said to Uncle Joe that he was lucky to have been in WWII since it was a good war. Uncle Joe simply put his hand over mine and calmly said “Timmy, there are no good wars.”

Down the PTS rabbit hole

My last post was a great cathartic release. It also felt like I wandered off from the main point of this blog. That left me wondering where to go from there. I felt like there was money left on the table, like I had more still to say on our collective PTS. I also wanted to get back to telling my own story. Then an anvil fell on my head and I realized that this idea of how America changed after 9/11 is the starting point of my own story. If I was writing my own origin story then it would start with September 11, 2001. I’m sure many Vets from my generation would make similar claims, so please don’t think I’m making some pompous statement here. Plain and simple, my path in life took a road from which there was no coming back on that day.

We’re not quite ready to delve into that yet though. Today we’re looking deeper at America’s long term reaction to 9/11. Generalities were stated in my last post. Today we need to examine some of the specific self harm that we have neglected to acknowledge. Unless we begin to admit these actions are harmful we are on a course of self destruction that may arrive much sooner than many would think.

(Side note – at this point I still didn’t know what to write so I went to see Black Panther, which appropriately is also an origin story)

Let’s look at three specific trends that began after 9/11 – reckless spending, willing surrender of privacy, and a slow roll toward an autocratic oligarchy. All of these trends are interrelated and were enabled by our mental victimization. Our fear allowed us to excuse a run away defense budget while simultaneously silencing any questioning of budgetary norms being ignored. Our fear allowed our privacy rights to be trampled without any pushback. Our fear has allowed more power to be consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer people in the past two decades.

I’m not writing to rail against a corrupt economy and body politic. That’s not an accurate summation of my opinions, and it’s certainly not in keeping with the spirit of this blog. I’m a guy who likes things straight down the middle, so we’ll look at some objective facts that relate to these three trends and talk about how they reflect our national path since 9/11.

First up, our insane spending on defense and national security and lack of careful scrutiny of said spending. For anyone who wants to do some detailed reading here’s a good jumping off point from CATO. The highlights – debt held by the public in 2002 was about 32% of GDP, in 2016 it had risen to 77% of GDP. While non-defense spending is part of this jump the bulk is certainly due to our sustained practice of paying for wars with credit and loans. For budget geeks like me, here are more data from the Council on Foreign Relations and an aggregate of US defense spending since 1900. The short of it is that our defense spending has rivaled WWII era spending, except that the Global War on Terror has lasted more than 4-times as long as WWII. With the recent budget deal passed we will continue this trend until 2020, essentially two full decades of defense spending on par with our efforts to fight a global war against multiple great power states that lasted 4 years.

Think about the effort needed to fight WWII. America had to essentially create a modern Army, Navy, and air forces (not yet a branch) in less than 2 years just to catch up to its enemies who all held technological advances by a full generation. The enemies being fought since 9/11 are the complete opposite in terms of technology. They have no navy or air forces – which means there is no great need to expend massive sums of money on our own. What is needed in a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fight is lots of people, effective intelligence operations, and a coordinated diplomatic effort.

This is where our civil/military divide came into play. Americans were terrified in the aftermath of 9/11 and in that panic gave the green light for any operation that was proposed. This unquestioning approval became a habit and developed into a perverted patriotism. To question military advice or spending requests was unpatriotic. The same hysteria that fueled Joe McCarthy was tapped by equally ambitious and predatory politicians.

This tactic was quickly applied to pass the PATRIOT ACT. While many of us may say that such thoughtless surrender of privacy has since abated, many of the restrictions removed by the PATRIOT ACT have been repeatedly reauthorized. Our trauma struck so deep that we have allowed our privacy rights to be infringed for the promise of security despite the fact that the former is not required for the later.

The fear that silenced any questioning of defense spending has also squashed any debate on privacy rights in the post-9/11 world. An engaged and well informed citizenry is essential for democracy to work. Our civil/military divide allowed the military to stay comfortable inside its bubble and it allowed civilians to wash their hands of civic duty. Both groups happily went along thinking that they were better off not interacting or understanding each other. While this divide widened, democracy’s enemies grew wide eyed and seized the opportunity. For the musically inclined I offer this explanation.

That gets us to point number three, the slow roll towards an autocratic oligarchy. Again, I’m not here rallying against the rich. That’s not my bag and I don’t think that the country is secretly controlled by the Koch brothers. However, we are absolutely in a period of great concentration of wealth, both by individuals and companies. Following the Great Recession individuals whose wealth was composed of investments made much larger gains than wage earners. Companies seeking growth turned to expansive acquisitions as the best use of capital. Nothing about that is nefarious per se, it’s completely logical. That does not change the fact that wealth and power have become concentrated to a point not seen since the Gilded Age.

While that in itself does not condemn the citizens of the United States to a dystopian future controlled by a few powerful individuals, it does set the stage. Great concentration of wealth has long been known to be a threat to democracy and was even on the minds of the Founding Fathers. Timothy Snyder’s recent book On Tyranny does a fantastic job of  highlighting how such concentrations of wealth and power enabled tyrants to come to power time and time again in the 20th Century. What I believe we are in danger of today is an apathetic citizenry that is so disengaged, so used to consigning away their rights that such autocratic powers could materialize before most realize what is happening.

Bringing this all back to the aftermath of 9/11 the roots of these trends lie in how we as a nation reacted to being attacked. A citizenry that had grown used to not thinking about the military that they funded continued to stay disengaged. Our civil/military divide enabled an even greater hands off approach to national security matters. To be told to return to our normal routines, to go out shopping and that to buy new homes was a display of our resilience and patriotism, this was music to the ears of a citizenry that was scared and clueless to national security policy. To face little civilian criticism was music to the ears of military leaders who were lieutenants during the closing days of Vietnam.

Contrast that with the reaction to Pearl Harbor and citizen action during WWII. Citizens were encouraged to buy war bonds, grow Victory Gardens, to ration things like sugar and give up silk stockings. Everyone shared in the sacrifice. The entire nation was truly mobilized, took ownership, and had a part to play. A cynic could say that the citizenry was also blasted with propaganda, but that’s a fairly weak rebuttal. America came together in a shared mission during WWII. During GWOT the military went overseas and the rest of America went back to the mall.

The key to reversing these trends is to reengage as a nation. For our citizens to become well informed and to think critically. Changing our attitudes towards raising questions from being troublesome, to viewing this as the greatest form of patriotism. To ask questions means you are involved and that you care about what we are doing as a nation. It means that you are taking ownership of what politicians and the military do on  your behalf. Be skeptic, not cynical. Trust but verify means you need to start with trusting others.

We all share in the moral injury of our nation’s actions. It does not matter if you were engaged or not, if you agreed with the actions or not, if you cheered on the wars or protested them. We are all complicit in the moral injury of America’s decisions. Pushing our heads deeper into the sand does nothing but make the injury fatal. We are at a turning point in American history. A generation has passed since the attacks of 9/11. We can correct our course, or we can go off the water fall. If we do not take ownership of the self inflicted harm that resulted from our unacknowledged trauma it will be our collective undoing.

Until we meet again.

 

Our shared trauma

It’s time to talk about Post Traumatic Stress. Not mine, I’m fortunate to not suffer from PTS, nor any other individual’s. We need to talk about our collective PTS as a nation.

This is the elephant in the room. We all know it exists, but rarely is it discussed. We see the symptoms every day. Our political gridlock, the anger on social media, the seeming impossibility of constructive debate, our self imposed segregation as a coping mechanism.

Satisfaction is more often derived from tearing someone down than from lifting them up. We scream at each other on planes. We rail against anyone perceived as ‘other’ on social media. We feel justified in passing judgement on total strangers. We distrust everything, unless it conforms to or reinforces our biases.

This all seems to be coming to a boiling point. Civil discourse left long ago. Logos is gone, pathos is running the show.

It’s understandable that emotions run high these days. But our emotions have taken over to a point of destruction.  We are too easily manipulated by third parties who have recognized this. Our emotional fragility has become weaponized while we were patting ourselves on the back for having such strength.

Just like an individual suffering from PTS we, as a united nation, must face some hard truths and move forward with reason guiding our thoughts and actions. So where do we start?

September 11, 2001

We don’t acknowledge it, but the attacks on 9/11 inflicted a mass casualty event upon the nation. Thousands died, many more would continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we all suffered a mental trauma that late summer day that set us on a path of self destruction. A trail of events that spans nearly two full decades now. Never ending wars compounded by a once in a century global economic shock, and disruptive technology that we struggle to adapt to.

America, we’ve stacked bodies higher than the Twin Towers, but the terrorists who sought our downfall are still winning. They’re winning because they knew that the only ones who could rip America apart are ourselves. This fact has been noted by America’s adversaries since WWII. For some reason we don’t grasp this. Always outward looking for the next great power threat, we have been killing America from the inside at a stunning rate.

This only stops and changes if we start to be honest about how 9/11 traumatized the nation. Our population felt a vulnerability not seen since 1814 when the British burned Washington, D.C. Whereas Pearl Harbor galvanized us in a common mission, a clear purpose with a plainly stated end point, 9/11 spurred us onto a jumble of mixed missions that few understood and with no definitive end.

America, we lashed out in October, 2001. We kicked ass. It felt great. Our swagger returned and we knew that we were great again. That didn’t last though, did it? Just as a person suffering from PTS we found quick salve to self medicate. Where a person might reach for booze, Percocet, or a warm gun to get that fix, we as a nation reaffirmed our validity with machine guns, artillery, and sweet precision guided munitions. We tapped that vein with a quick shot of American martial might and validated ourselves.

And just like the individual reaching for a quick, self medicated fix, we collectively came down from our martial high. We looked around wondering why the good times stopped. In our collective paranoia we started looking inward to find the ‘other’. The rotten cancer infecting us from within had to be the reason we fell back down. We drew dividing lines in our society. We labeled those we did not like as unpatriotic or as fascists. Everyone was with us or against us. We found serenity in our black and white world.

But this wasn’t what we needed. We needed to accept that we were all in pain. That all any of us wanted was to live without fear again, to know we would not be hurt and victimized again. In our fear and anger we struck out at the people we once, and maybe still did, love. We did it time and again, going deeper down the rabbit hole of self destructive soothing.

America, we must stop the denial and collective self harm. We need to stop hating ourselves for all our misdeeds and remember how great we have always been. We are still that beautiful city on high. If we allow ourselves to forgive we can mend our way.

Say it with me. September 11, 2001 hurt us like never before, but it will not define us. The attacks of 9/11 are something that happened to us, they are a part of who we are, but we are much more than the scared victims of that day. We will move forward to write our own story on our own terms.

We are a nation with a mission and a responsibility. We are an example of civility, we are a country that values freedom and mutual respect above all else. We are a beacon of hope, shining all around the world.

That is who we really are, even if we don’t always act like it.

So how do we get back to being the country we know we are? It starts with little things. Small corrections to our perceptions, our thoughts, and our actions.

Look at the person you don’t know with affection, not suspicion. See people not as ‘the other’ but as another American. Act with civility that would make our Founders proud. Start by talking to someone who you’d normally ignore. Talk to people with different views than you. Speak to each other calmly, with respect. Seek out these interactions not as a way to change the other person’s mind so that they can be like you, but to find some common ground. Challenge yourself to respect, possibly even like, a person with whom you disagree.

We must rebuild our sense of community without putting conditions on each other. Leave the safety net of self isolation and re-learn to live with each other, accepting our differences. Depart from the mindset of confrontation and march forward with compassion.

Break down your fear and anger and you begin to mend your trauma.

We are only great when we see the greatness of each other. As a nation we share the moral injury of Afghanistan, Iraq, racial strife, our economic inequality, and our ignorance to the shared pain we all suffer. Put away the anger and exercise empathy. When you feel the knee jerk reaction of wondering just what someone else is, stop yourself.

As you read this you may be looking for subtle hints in my word choice, pointing to some hidden clue as to what I am. He’s a liberal/conservative! Must be a stinking Democrat/Republican. This perverse need to identify and classify everything and everyone has become ingrained. Searching to define everyone is so natural to us that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Is he with me or against me? Will this person hurt me?

Here’s the unmasking. I am an American. I am a human being, the same as you.

America, admit it with me. We have a problem but we are strong enough to overcome. We just need some compassion, and we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.

Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

Chingu, Habibi, Friend

After a brief holiday break it’s nice to be back with you. Hope you had a great time whatever you celebrated. My wife and I took off for Nashville for the NYE Jimmy Buffett show. Absolutely fabulous time with a couple of highlights that I wanted to share here. One was getting accosted by religious zealots outside of the Bridgestone Arena, the other was getting to see two friends that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. Before I dive into today’s story I just want to take a moment to express my gratitude to my wife for dealing with my insistence to drive from WNY to Nashville in one day (then go out to see The Dead Deads at the Lipstick Lounge that night) and for her graciousness in meeting my friends whom she did not know.

This was my first time being the subject of someone’s religious protest, so chalk that one up for the record books. I had always seen some ‘End-of-days’ types with their John 3:16 signs at Bills games, but they were friendly. These folks outside of the Buffett show were the real ‘fire and brimstone’ types, vacillating between warnings of going to Hell for our sins and then condescending mockery of how the concert-goers were stupid, immature, and acting like teenagers (because teenagers are all evil of course). It was truly a sight to behold in the single digit temperatures. Add to that a security back-up that had 300 foot long lines taking an hour to get inside and the folks in line were getting agitated.

Now, people can pretty much say what they want to me and I can brush it off. I just shook my head at how these Christians were acting like anything but, and the irony of someone standing in the cold to shout a message nobody cared about which included telling the Parrotheads that they were wasting their lives was a bit much. Almost past the group of Westboro Baptist Church wannabes I was stuck with one of them in front of me, blocking my free movement just enough for me to let an elbow jut out, meeting the pudgy proselytizer in the ribcage. While this gave a measure of quick satisfaction I immediately cursed myself for giving in to the easy temptation. For the record, I was not intoxicated, this was a clear-headed choice. I knew by jabbing my elbow in his ribs that this guy would feel vindicated and righteous. Still, he was blocking the free movement of people peaceably assembling. I stood there wondering which was the greater Constitutional infringement, my elbowing a protester exercising his religious freedom (misguided as it was) or this man’s infringement upon the right of people’s freedom of movement and right to enjoy themselves at a concert? I did know that my reaction was anything but Stoic. Certainly I was not being materially wronged or harmed and should have simply ignored these zealots and continued on my way.

So this was an opportunity to practice some Stoic self control and I failed. Reflecting on this though, I realize that a short time ago I may have been much quicker to throw that ‘bow, or to go even further. That makes me sad and also gives me some satisfaction that sticking with regular therapy sessions and devoting myself to Stoicism has been helping. While I could brood on my failings in controlling my emotions and taking right action I know that the proper thing to do now is to recognize and accept my failing, learn from it, and do better next time. This is important not just for the sake of being a good human, but also to be a credible voice. It’s one thing to sit here writing a lot of lovely things, but if I fail to live up to these words and then fail to change my ways I am nothing but a hypocrite. We all fail, getting back up and doing better, rather than maintaining the status quo, is what separates people. I will do better.

Now, the other topic I want to delve into is a bit of a set up. Journaling at the hotel room in Columbus, OH it became clear that I have only a partial thought. Still, discussing meeting up with old friends has something important to it, and rather than waiting for the thought to mature before writing about it I want to share some thoughts with y’all and let the writing develop the thought.

One thing people often point out as a uniqueness of the military, or at the least one of the benefits of the military, is the strong sense of camaraderie. This is something that I have had a hard time with, but after years of thought I believe my cynicism may have been the result of unfair expectations. I often felt let down by the Army and lied to. In hindsight this was probably as much my own fault as the Army’s. My lack of controlling my emotion added to the feeling and a negative feedback loop of jadedness followed. I never belonged to a unit where it felt like everyone (or even most people) got along. I was never in a unit where people would spend their weekends with the same clowns they spent their duty days with. Korea was an exception, but even there the unit I was in lacked compared to other units on Camp Casey.

The expected camaraderie just didn’t exist. This was difficult to accept, but some years later I think I’ve finally realized what that unique camaraderie really meant. While units were not filled with friends, I left every unit with a couple of really close friends. These were people who did become family to me, people who I would still rush to help at the drop of a hat. Having spent six years in different civilian jobs now, I can say that I’ve never met a friend at any of those jobs who I felt an equally strong bond with. Now, that’s not to say I think everyone I’ve met at my civilian jobs is a schmuck, I’ve met some people that I really like and hang out with from time to time. I wouldn’t drive 1,000 miles to see them or go out of my way on a road trip just to have a meal with them though. And there’s the rub. That camaraderie I wanted so badly did exist, and I couldn’t see it until it was gone.

On our recent trip my friend Remington Vandergriff drove to Nashville from Clarksville to have dinner with us. We spent a few hours sharing drinks, food, and good stories. We got to catch up face to face for the first time since June 2008. We text and call each other frequently, but it still struck us that it had been so many years between hugs. That being said, we picked up right where we left off. We had lived and worked together at the ADA OBC and then in Korea. We travelled to Guam and all over Seoul and Busan together. We had some really great nights out in El Paso. We’ve saved each other from dangerous situations more than once.

Driving back to NY we decided to split the drive over two days. This allowed time to stop on New Year’s Day to visit another friend, Zach Morgan. I met Zach at LDAC in the summer of 2005 and hadn’t seen him since. Again, Zach is a friend I am in fairly frequent communication with. He’s also one of the friends who partnered with me on the Band of Bards project that I wrote about earlier. Our mutual affinity for history and common world view made us fast friends. Driving some backroads just northeast of Louisville, I commented that we could’ve been anywhere in WNY by the looks of things. As big as America is its continuity is a marvel. We arrived at Zach’s home in time for gumbo, sharing dinner with Zach, his wife (who I’d never met), their children, and two of their friends. We were welcomed like family, conversation striking up as if we met for dinner every week. Sadly, it was a sort of dine and dash as we only had a couple hours to spend and another 3 plus hours of driving before reaching Columbus.

As I drove through Ohio I started to think over these reunions. I couldn’t help but wonder how common it was to meet people like Remington and Zach. I could name a half dozen or so others that I met over 5 years in the Army who I could have similar experiences with. The longer I though the more it seemed that this was probably a high number of close friends to make over such a period. I wondered what other people experienced in their first 10 years out of college. There aren’t many people that I went to high school with that I still keep in contact with, let alone consider such close friends. The same for college. So is that just my isolated experience, or can this be confirmed? Did the Army really leave me with truly unique, life-long friendships that people in other industries don’t experience? This is something I’d like to explore some more. This could be one of those civil/military divide aspects that deserves more attention. When people ask why anyone would go into or stay in the military it isn’t uncommon for someone to respond that they did it because of the people they met. Maybe the friends you make in the military really do have a uniqueness to them that is much harder to come by in the civilian world? We’ll only find out by asking.

So here I need your help, True Believer. What’s your take on this? Leave some comments and let’s get a conversation started. I’d really like to get some opinions from both sides of the room on this one.

Until we meet again.

Civil/military relations of The Punisher

There was a great disturbance in my life this past week. As if millions of my hopes cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced by Rian Johnson. When I say this aloud I realize how sad it is, but my disappointment after seeing The Last Jedi on Thursday put me in a real funk for a few days. I’m not going into that here, but I wanted to at least take time to acknowledge this, how silly it is, and to bear some Star Wars fanboy soul.

With that out of the way, I actually want to talk about a different Disney property that has yet to fail me and how it got me thinking about how veterans are portrayed in popular media. By that I mean all sorts of media – TV, radio, movies, the news, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I binged a bit on Marvel’s The Punisher yesterday and it struck me for how it dove into the issue of veterans transitioning out of the military with a uniquely authentic tone. The show is not glossing over the issue, it’s not playing up any stereotype in a superficial manner, and it is not hiding or shrinking from the topic. If you have Netflix, check out the show.

If you’re not familiar with The Punisher, Frank Castle is (in this installment anyway) a former Marine officer. His last assignment was a deployment to Afghanistan in which he was on an off the books team of various special operations types doing a lot of really dirty work (war crimes) under the direction of a CIA spook. As it relates to this blog post, this storyline leaves Frank with a bunch of messed up memories. The show also features two of Frank’s fellow teammates from that deployment, one of whom now runs a private security firm (Blackwater, anyone?) and another who we see running a support group for veterans. The scenes with this support group offer a chance for the show to take on some other supporting characters that do not require much screen time while still being able to introduce a whole gambit of veterans with varying degrees of success in post-military life.

This interests me as it’s not totally necessary to advance the main plot, but it adds a degree of depth to the show for a character who is typically just thought of as a knuckle-dragging, ball of rage, revenge machine with a value system that is so diametrically clear cut it is hard to introduce much subtlety.  Now, I am not a finesse guy. That’s why The Punisher always appealed to me. So getting this sub-plot of ancillary characters to introduce some moral ambiguity is a great shot of complexity. I think that the writers are treating the subject of post-military life with a fair level of seriousness and also present some different views in a way that respects the topic while not playing soft.

One of these chaps is a young post-9/11 vet who is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He is angry, a bit paranoid, vulnerable, and just cannot find meaning out of uniform. He’s also not a caricature of these themes, he presents these real world problems in a very authentic manner. We see Louis fall deeper into himself and withdraw from the group. He is preyed upon by another older vet who attends the support group. This character presents the antagonistic force to the group leader. He openly tells the group that he shows up just to ‘tell the truth’ to the rest of the group. He’s the angry old vet (and we find out later that he’s a stolen valor d-bag) who insists that the country doesn’t care about us, that he was spit on and treated like garbage. He is the self-entitled, ‘your welcome for my service’ kind of guy. This is of note as we do not often see this side presented in media. The ugly vet is a difficult topic to take on for a movie or TV show, with lots of potential backlash. The fact that The Punisher takes this on and does so well with it warrants mention and serious propers.

Louis also got me thinking about myself. I struggled with all of the same things as this character does. Finding purpose was the hardest thing (still is) and the underlying anger that goes along with drifting through life can eat you up. Looking around at the rest of the country, the country that exists outside of the bubbles around military bases, and recognizing that people don’t care about the wars or the military as you do. Feeling betrayed by the fact that their lives go on, blissfully ignorant of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. Resenting your peers for having a leg up on you with their civilian careers even though you’ve done way more impressive and important things. Doubting yourself more and more as you continue to struggle to adjust and just be a normal fucking person. Everyone else has an easy time doing it, why can’t you!?

I remember being out at a local bar one night after finishing up Sebastian Junger’s War. It started out alright and I was enjoying being out and around people. At some point though I realized I was clenching my hands into fists, looking at everyone with a spiteful eye. I hated these people. These pathetic wastes of life who didn’t deserve to be out enjoying themselves while others were still dying on the mountains of Afghanistan. How could they live with theirselves, going on with such trivial and meaningless lives? They didn’t care that Resrepto got wasted. They didn’t care about anything except drinking cheap beer and trying to get laid.

Talk about being full of yourself. I hadn’t been any different than everyone else in that bar not too long ago. There was no justifiable reason for me to feel the way I did that night. Luckily I went outside to get some air, quickly started feeling like a weirdo, and then walked home without incident. This happened only a couple years ago, more than 4 years after separating from the Army. Clearly I still needed more help. I had done some therapy sessions at my local VA clinic but stopped because of changing work schedules. Around the same time that all this happened I got back into regular sessions at an office outside of Buffalo. It’s really hard to see myself having the same reaction today, but to think that some of those feelings aren’t still lingering would be a lie.

The therapy has helped, and I truly think everyone would benefit from checking in with a therapist from time to time. What helped me turn a corner of sorts was stumbling onto Stoicism. I read that Stoic philosophy was a cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so it seemed sensible to learn more about it and how the two related. Well, this was a lightbulb-switching-on kind of moment for me. Stoic teachings overlapped with many of the values I learned in the Army and still cling to. The importance on acting like a good person and putting your philosophy into action, rather than just going through an academic exercise of thinking about what makes a person good, was something that attracted me. Deeds over words. This was something that I understood.

Admittedly, I had been floating in the wind when it came to religion/spirituality. Catholicism and me split ways long ago. While I still have great respect for Franciscan teachings, monotheism just doesn’t do it for me. That obvious conflict left me with a bit of a void. Stoic philosophy helped to fill in the gaps and give me something more tangible to grasp. More lightbulbs went off. I learned that much of that anger was just my own incorrect perception. I learned to accept that other people are not going to care about the same things that I do, or if they do it won’t be to the same extent that I do. It finally dawned on me that this isn’t because those people are of poor moral character, but because they have their own lives with their own worries. I started to sort out these toxic ideas that I had carried with me for years. It’s still a work in progress, but the impact of practicing Stoicism was substantial and swift.

The lesson here is that bridging the civil/military divide helps both the civilian and the veteran. Both parties need that to happen as a way to heal individually, and collectively. We each share in the moral burden of our country’s wars, we each have something to learn from each other. I hope you’re finding value in what I am sharing. This blog is certainly helping me. And, after all, you’re here, and I’m here, so isn’t this really OUR blog?

Until we meet again.

 

How to bridge that civil/military gap, and still have fun

This past Veterans Day I read a great post from War on the Rocks. I mentioned it in an earlier post of mine and wanted to revisit it today. In the piece there is a discussion of how to engage a veteran with great examples of questions to ask, ones to never ask, and some deeper questions to ask once you’re on familiar terms with a veteran. I thought I’d take the questions from this article and give you my answers. My hope is that we get a bit closer and that you can then use this example to go engage with someone in a thoughtful, constructive way. Regardless of what side of the civil/military divide you fall on there is room to grow. Vets need to make themselves available and approachable, civilians need to know that actively engaging us with your curiosity is welcomed and needed.

Questions from the source article will be in italics with my answers in regular text. With that, let’s rap.

“What service were you in? Why did you choose that one?” – I was in the Army from May 2006 – July 2011. Initially I looked at joining the Air Force because I wanted to fly a fighter jet. I caught the aviation bug as a young kid. Top Gun was partly to blame, who didn’t watch that and say to themselves “I wanna kick the tires and light the fires.” What really drove my martial ambitions was my admiration for my Uncle Joe. He was a turret gunner in a B-17 in Europe from 1943-44 and made it through his 25 mission tour of duty when that was still fairly rare. His stories captivated me, his lessons formed me as a young boy. There’s much more I could write about him but that should be saved for another time. Suffice to say, with the influences around me as a boy, it was evident for a long time that I was bound for military service. Unfortunately I had dogshit eyesight. I graduated high school in 2002 and the Air Force at that time did not accept pilots without naturally perfect eyesight. Nothing else in the Air Force really interested me, the Navy was never an option to me, the Marines had appeal but I was told ‘if you wanna be a Jarhead you can do the same thing in the Army and be treated better’ – or something to that effect. So I set my mind to the Army. My high school had JROTC and I participated in that for three years. It was helpful in building some connections to St. Bonaventure University. Some recent graduates had won ROTC scholarships to SBU and laid a good reputation for my high school. So I applied for an ROTC scholarship to SBU, Canisius College, and a couple others. I was offered a 3-year scholarship from Bonas and my path to the Army became pretty clear. In retrospect there were a lot of different paths I had to choose from, including enlisting in the Army should I get no scholarship offers. College just didn’t seem like a possibility otherwise. I’m very fortunate and grateful that I was given the chance to attend St. Bonas. As much as I would love to have flown an F-15, I wouldn’t trade my time as a Bonnie for anything.

“Are you still in the military? What are you doing now? What are your friends doing now?”  – So after I separated from the Army I struggled quite a bit to find another job. Mine is a story all too often seen. After years of being told to not worry about post-Army employment because every company loves to hire vets, especially officers, I found this rang pretty hollow. I had dabbled with some of the JMO headhunters (recruiting firms placing recently separated officers into their first civilian jobs) but found that the options available to me and my BA in history to be doo doo. Lots of jobs on oil rigs, which sounded to me to be a lot like being the Army but with different clothes. So I had to do things on my own, relocating back to WNY, no professional network, tons of skills that local hiring managers didn’t understand, and no way in hell of getting a job near the same level I had just been.

I had earned some GI Bill benefits, so I went back to Bonas. I dove into an MBA program that was out of a remote campus in Hamburg, NY (just outside of Buffalo). Holy shit. Never took a business class before, no math classes in over 5 years, totally unsure of what I was getting into. This program met Friday evenings from 6 – 9 and then Saturday mornings from 9 – 2:30, one class at a time for 5 weeks, 3 classes in a 15 week semester. It felt like being on an education assembly line. This took me three full years to complete. I found a job finally in November 2011, so I worked full time for most of the three years that I was a full time student. First I spent time working for M&T Bank as a credit counselor, which was a very churched up term for debt collector. I did this for nearly two years, during which time I began to hate myself. I started getting physically sick at the same point of my commute each day and started to have my first battles with depression. I left that job when the office relocated and I told my bosses that it was too far of a drive for what I made. They seemed shocked when I told them this on the Friday before the move, even thought I had been telling them this for months. So with bridges thoroughly burned I left the worst professional experience of my life. Luckily I talked my way into a nice job at a local winery within a couple weeks. This was a great job that fit my school schedule, I saw myself as a student first because I knew that was the only way for me to get ahead. I spent about 18 months there, finally graduating (something that shocked me), and then took my current job with the Department of Homeland Security in February 2015. I won’t get into specifics about my job here. I should also probably point out that the views expressed in this blog are my own and in no way represent the US Government or DHS!

As for my friends, they’re doing all sorts of ill shit. Some became lawyers, some are working in the energy industry, some are still serving. That’s a tough one to get into without making this post 5,000 words. If any of you True Believers want to know more about this or have specific questions, leave a comment.

“What inspired you to join?” –  Talked about this a little bit in the first answer. I remember a colonel from Cadet Command coming to speak to us my freshman year at Bonas and he went around the table asking this question. I joked that I might have watched too much G.I. Joe as a kid. He didn’t laugh. Really though I was just always fascinated by all things military. I was certainly taken in by the romance of military service. I hate to paint myself as such a cliche, but really I was just a born sucker for this stuff. As I got older I had this feeling that I was meant to do something important, to not squander life by being average. This feeling still haunts me a bit. I will say that such expectations set me up to be disappointed, to become cynical and jaded very quickly. We can dive deep into that as I write about my time in Korea and the effect of our Long War on morale military-wide.

“What was your job? What was the most rewarding part of doing it?”  – I was an Air Defense Artillery officer. Enlistedmen get an MOS (military occupational specialty) and officers get assigned a branch. Each branch is filled with soldiers assigned to a more specific job within the general branch. It’s like how a private company will have a sales division, marketing, HR, and so on. Within each of those divisions are managers who oversee employees performing different specific jobs.

So as an ADA officer I would be trained to lead both HIMAD and SHORAD units. If you’ve paid attention to what’s going on in Korea you’ve seen the HIMAD stuff, Patriot and THAAD batteries designed to knock out ballistic missiles like the ones North Korea has been testing. The SHORAD stuff has been scaled back to the point that it barely exists. This part of ADA focused on shooting down things like fixed and rotary wing aircraft (planes and helicopters), cruise missiles, and now drones and indirect fire (artillery and mortar shells). The HIMAD stuff is thought to be sexier, and it is far more expensive (or lucrative if you’re Raytheon), so for the last few decades HIMAD grew and SHORAD shrank. This was worrisome to me as I attended my ADA Officer’s Basic Course (OBC). I had no interest in the Patriot stuff, and frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Through an odd stroke of luck I never once set foot in a Patriot unit during those 5 years. Again, I think we’ve found something to expand upon in later posts.

As far as my most rewarding experiences, I’d have to say Korea was the one place that SHORAD assets are still appreciated. This is where I felt I had the greatest purpose and utility out of all my assignments. Also, becoming friends with the Iraqi colonel I was partnered with was pretty great. I can still remember the videos of his kids playing that he shared with me. I still think of him and his family quite often, hoping that they are safe.

“What surprised you the most about being overseas?” – In Korea I was shocked at how safe I felt. The country has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Honestly I always felt safe, even if I was alone, except for when I saw other Americans. I found that by being respectful and learning a few basic words/phrases in Korean like ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘thank you’, a person could get by pretty easily and have no worries. This taught me quite a bit about other cultures. The year I spent in Korea truly transformed me as a person.

As for Kuwait and Iraq, well I fucking hate deserts that’s for sure. Time in Kuwait was limited to deboarding the 747, hopping on a bus, and being transported from one US base to another. I was only there for a couple weeks for standard environmental acclimatization and some extra training before flying into Iraq. My lasting memories of Kuwait are confined to the sight of Kuwait City at night (it looked like an island of electric light in a sea of darkness), the awful smell that hit me as I got off the plane (a mix of jet fumes, hot mess, and general stench), and a really nasty sand storm that I got caught in when I went for a walk to buy a phone calling card.

Iraq was another lesson in cultural appreciation. My job on the BTT put me into daily interaction with Iraqis in a much more intimate setting than most soldiers experienced. Here I confirmed some thoughts that had been scurrying around in my head, defying cognitive capture. This is where I came to know without any doubt in my mind that people are people wherever you go. All we want is security. Physical security, mental security, food security, financial security, and security for our children. What all people simply want is the liberty to go about their lives free from fear, able to do what they please so long as they aren’t causing harm. That description probably fits 90% – 95% of the world’s population. For some reason that doesn’t seem to be a narrative shared by many Americans. I think the collective trauma of 9/11 robbed us of this truth and this vulnerability was seized for financial gain by all manner of bad actors, foreign, but mostly domestic. Whoops, off track again.

“What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you in the military?” –  Well, there was the Stinger missile range in Korea where we nearly blew up a Korean fishing boat. We had to fire the Stingers off of a beach and away from North Korea just to be safe (the range of a Stinger is only a few kilometers). The Korean Coast Guard was assisting us in setting up a perimeter on the water to warn away fishing boats. Well, right after a Stinger was fired some joker decided he was going to go where he wanted to and came buzzing around a cliff. Stingers are heat seeking missiles and the boat was giving off a stronger heat signature than the drone target. From the control tower we watched as the Stinger changed course towards the fishing boat, only turning away at the last second, heading back to the drone target. That was nearly a very ugly international incident. I’m glad the dopey fisherman didn’t get blown away, that would’ve seriously screwed up my weekend plans after getting back from the range.

Oh, there was also a scorpion that we found in a toilet at an aide station in Iraq. We were doing a walk through of some of the facilities of the Border Police Academy and in the bathroom we found this ugly black scorpion trapped in a toilet. This was one of the eastern style toilets that is inset with the floor for you to squat over. The scorpion had fallen in and could not climb out because of the curve of the toilet. This was way more entertaining than it should have been, and the scorpion may or may not have gotten pissed on. The next time we went to the COB I found a poster of deadly insects and animals in the area. Turns out that scorpion was one of the deadliest in the Middle East. And I thought finding a tick in my dick at Fort Knox was bad!

“Was the food as crappy as we hear?” – Another thing I briefly talked about in an earlier post. The worst food I’ve had was in the Army, and some of best food I’ve had was also in the Army. The DFACs at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) were the most impressive I saw anywhere. Steaks and seafood were always available, fresh eggs, fresh baked breads, and even the mythical 32nd flavor of Baskin Robbins were available. It really was obscene.

The other end of that spectrum can be summed up in two words ‘Nerf eggs’. On a late winter training exercise in Korea the ‘eggs’ being served from the field kitchen were so dense that they bounced. I opted to stock up on single serve boxes of Frosted Flakes, my ever present Pop-tarts, and Asian apples. I also ordered the guys in my platoon to all get eggs every morning. We would all go through the chow line and then gather around the hood of my HMMWV to eat and compete to see who could bounce their eggs off the hood the farthest. It was cold, wet, and muddy, but each morning we had some good laughs thanks to the worst eggs ever made.

“What did you do in your free time while you were deployed?” – Here’s something that’ll piss a lot of people off, I had private Internet into my CHU. Thanks to the team we replace in Iraq, every one of us on the team had a private hook up. The last team had swindled a satellite hook up under the pretense of setting up a shared Internet cafe for themselves since they were at a remote location. Being at a remote location no pencil pushing civilian was going to drop in on them to ensure that the cafe was set up as proposed and the privilege was not being abused by setting up individual lines. Of course that’s exactly what they did, and we continued doing this. So while I was living remotely on a weird Iraqi Army base, I had a CHU to myself and my own Internet hook up. I watched The Office a lot, Skyped with my wife, and was able to pretty much keep up with what was going on in the rest of the world. Otherwise it was a bit like college in that we were a fairly close nit group for just being thrown together, and we would just hang out and bust each other’s balls. Except we would be cleaning M-4s and machine guns while doing the ball busting. So kinda like college in Texas.

Alright. That was fun. Some surface scratching there but now you have some greater understanding of my time in the Army. There are a few more questions from the War on the Rocks article that I will save for another time. They’re the ‘advanced’ questions and it seems better to come back to them another time.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my story. Hope you liked it and will continue to come back.

Pax et bonum

Bob Ross as a spiritual guide

Indulge me if you will. This will be a meandering missive, but I promise a few gems (not the Infinity kind). This has been a week full of frustrating news and to counter this I turned to an old friend, Bob Ross. Amazon Prime now streams seasons 10 – 31 of The Joy of Painting, and it really saves my mental health some days – thanks Bezos. Sometimes I just put it on for background noise, Bob’s soft voice never fails to return positive vibes. As a kid I would watch Bob whenever I was home sick, now I make it a regular part of taking care of myself. There is something so pleasing about the sound of a fan brush striking canvas to make happy little trees. Or the sharp scrape of a painting knife scratching in some happy little twigs. All these audio stimuli combined exude calmness, serenity, tranquility.

As I binged on Bob a couple nights ago I was struck by how many of his witticisms, which can seem goofy at first, are very much like the lessons I’ve been learning from my dive into Stoicism. I started jotting down different Bob sayings, ideas, and other lessons to be gleaned from this gentle afro-grandpa. By the time I finished for the night I had 14 separate bulletized notes. For ease of reading I’m putting my notes in quotes to distinguish them from the rest of the post’s content (suck it, grammar). Here. We. Go.

“You need the dark to see the light” – This of course was always in reference to creating contrast in his paintings, but Bob would occasionally point out how this applies to sorrow and happiness. During the life of The Joy of Painting, Bob lost his mother and his wife, yet he kept bringing light to all of us. At times it seems like creating paintings to share and seeing others experience the joy of painting is what kept Bob going. Taking the sorrow and using it to create happiness for others brought light back into Bob’s life. That’s powerful.

“On the canvass you control all. But nowhere else, so don’t stress over what you can’t control” – A major teaching of the Stoics was that to be happy we must recognize what we control, accept what we do not control, and only concern ourselves with that which we have control over. Bob would joke that when he left the studio and went home all he was in charge of was taking out the garbage, but when he painted he had absolute control over that world. Painting provided a medium to channel frustrations with the outside world, to enjoy having control over something so that he could accept the things he did not control. How much more joy would we all have if we all practiced this in our own way? Lately it seems many people are consumed with their anger, often with things outside their control. That is sad and dangerous. What I can do is to refuse to live like that and share these thoughts with you all in hopes of spreading these ideas.

“Give voice to your thoughts – sounds, naming anything, it’s why we write!” – OK, this is slightly disjointed, but hey, it’s my notes! The lesson here is that the quirk Bob had of putting voice to what he was thinking, even down to making his own sound effects or naming inanimate objects, is healthy and spurs our creativity. My wife will often ask me ‘Are the sound effects really necessary?’ Well, yes. Maybe all those hours of watching Bob when I was a kid is what formed this habit in me. Try it out sometime. Being a weirdo is essential to personal freedom. Keeping everything in your head all the time will take a toll on you, share your thoughts and ideas with the world. We all have something to add.

“No mistakes, only happy accidents” – Possibly my favorite Bob-ism. It’s pretty simple and carries so much power. If you screw up, there is always a way to make something positive out of the situation. It can be difficult to see how or what good can come from some of life’s bumps, but there is opportunity for good in every bad situation. This too is strikingly Stoic. The idea that our perception of an event, rather than the event itself, is what is good or bad was often talked about. It is challenging to live this every day, but that’s the point! The more we are able to live out this idea the better person we become.

“Importance & impact of a gentle touch “2 hairs & a whisper”‘ – Some elements of Bob’s painting technique (wet on wet) required a very delicate touch. He would say “2 hairs and a whisper is all you need” to emphasize just how little pressure was needed at times. To me this also speaks to how our own small, seemingly insignificant actions can make a profound impact. We all face adversity in our lives all the time, often not sharing it. Suicide prevention is a hot button issue for veterans, and really the US as a whole. ‘Check your buddy’ is pounded into your head in the military, but really it’s just a good thing for all of us to do all the time. So be kind to each other. You never know when a gentle word or a random phone call will save a life.

“Aggregation of many small things, that on their own are indistinct, make something beautiful” – Bob’s paintings usually looked like a toddler’s scribblings until about half way through. Then, all these weird, ugly smudges and criss-crossing brush strokes started to coalesce into a gorgeous landscape. The jumbled up picture in Bob’s head (he also had a model painting off camera to his right) would develop and give us all something to marvel at. Bob would say we all have that ability, and it’s true. The greater point here is that all of our small actions eventually add up. Make your actions good and just, take care to do the small things right and the big picture will take care of itself before your eyes.

“Caring about all life. Equanimity to all.” – Bob loved nature and would often show off some birds or squirrels that he and his wife would care for until they were ready to go back to the wild. Peapod the Pocket Squirrel was a favorite. Even after being let loose to nature he would return each day to Bob’s house for a visit. I try to emulate this with bird feeders and putting out food for the squirrels in my backyard. Now that winter is setting in here in NY the visits are less frequent. Spring and summer bring so many different creatures to my backyard zoo though, and it’s a great joy to just watch them. It’s a great way to develop compassion and empathy, things I’m sometimes lacking. Each day is a new opportunity to work on this and to live up to the Franciscan ideals of serving all.

“Believe that you can do it and you will” – Bob loved the wet on wet technique for its ease and mass accessibility. He believed anyone could make paintings just like his. Knowing that people still felt intimidated or uncertain, he frequently reminded us all that it is possible and that the first step is to simply believe in ourselves. Attitude is everything, right? Having the confidence that we can succeed is more important than any natural talent. I have struggled with this so much in my transition to civilian life. It’s easy to remember my failings. At one point I counted up 14 different things I had tried and failed at, or just quit, since leaving the Army. It may have taken longer than I wanted, but I’m here writing this blog now. I’m building up towards this goal of writing a book, post by post.

“Spreading joy/goodness is self-reenforcing” – Another concept that has been explored pretty broadly. For as much as this is talked about it’s odd how often we fail to follow through on it. We all know it, when we make someone else happy we also gain some happiness. Certainly something I need to keep in mind and live up to much more.

“All of us need a creative outlet” – Touched on this a bit earlier. Finding a constructive outlet for our emotions is essential. We’re still in the early days of this blog, but I immediately recognized the benefits of getting back to writing. One day I will try painting, when I have the space to dedicate to paint flying everywhere. For now this bit of writing that I am sticking to is helping me to focus my thoughts, get the noise out of my head, feel productive, and make tangible steps towards a big goal. I’m thrilled whenever someone reads my posts or leaves a comment, but first and foremost I’m here for myself because it’s good for my mental health.

“Dissatisfaction with your painting is a blessing. If you ever make a painting you’re completely satisfied with you might as well stop painting because you have nowhere to go if there is no more improvement to be made” – This is one of those needing dark to see the light things. If you achieve perfection, why continue? Don’t be upset at yourself for having shortcomings, look on them as chances to keep improving yourself. Again, we run into that Stoic idea of our perception, rather than the situation, bestowing value. We are human, by nature we suck. Embrace that and find ways to be better. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the meaning of life?

“Don’t be afraid to make big decisions. They can always be altered with some effort” – Bob would reach a point in his paintings where it was time to ‘make a big decision’ or that it was ‘time for your bravery test’. This would mean that he was about to put a large tree in the foreground, or begin to set the peaks of a mountain range. These were essential elements to the painting, pieces that would draw your attention and provide something dramatic to admire. In the world of that canvass, these were life and death decisions, something to terrify the inexperienced painter. Bob’s way of helping us get over the anxiety was to remind us that if something didn’t go as we wanted it to, there were ways of fixing our happy accident. There is always a way to mend what we foul up. It may be difficult, it may take time, but we can always turn the bad into good. So don’t be fearful. Don’t let your anxieties paralyze you into inaction. Make the best decision you can, have faith in yourself to see where you can do better and know that you will.

“Everyone needs friends, even trees” Bob gave everything in his paintings friends. No tree stood alone, not even fence posts were solitary. While we must find the strength to do right within ourselves, we all need support. We all need help and to have good people around us. Humans are social creatures, and while we might not all want tons of friends or to even be around other humans very often, we do need friends. They help us grow through life, they are there when we need support or even just to help us work through a problem. Don’t forget to be a friend, and remember to say “thank you for being a friend.” (You just sang that, didn’t you?)

“If what you’re doing isn’t working change your technique/approach” My last note! Bob would mention, from time to time, that he originally tried to be a traditional painter. The wet on wet technique that he became known for was derided as amateur. It was looked down on by critics because it was easy and for the masses. If art isn’t exclusionary then what’s the point!? Well, the point is to express yourself and to enjoy the practice. Ignoring the critics, Bob embraced the wet on wet technique and found his niche. I think we all encounter this dilemma in our lives. Don’t be afraid to change course, and don’t let yourself be anchored to any dogma. I tried several times to start writing a full length book from start to finish. That never worked for me, for many reasons. I changed up my approach though, and progress is being made.

There you have it. The wisdom I gleaned from a night of bingeing on Bob Ross. I hope you liked it and can see why I view Bob Ross as a spiritual guide in life. If you’re still wondering why I love Bob Ross so much I suggest watching this and this. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of living up to everything I just wrote! I’m certainly glad you joined me today. Bob would end each show by saying “Happy painting, and God bless”, this wouldn’t make sense for me to say. So instead I’ll just steal from another artist I admire and leave you with “Be good and you will be lonesome.”